Marnie (1964)

Watched Marnie (1964), a psychological marriage counseling thriller starring “Tippi” Hedren as a sexy childhood trauma victim whose misanthropy and flat affect bring all the boys to the yard.

One such boy is Sean Connery, a millionaire with the thick Scottish accent that all Americans recognize means he’s from Philly.

For some reason that’s never made clear to me, he falls in love with Marnie and makes her one of his special projects. There is some hint at one point of a sort of malicious motivation, as though he enjoys trapping her and studying her. There’s also that implied rape scene, can’t forget that. But this notion is dropped pretty quickly and never picked up again. By the end, he’s very much the good guy, and one can see why she’d rather stay married to him than spend her life in jail. They may even push the beds together.

This is supposed to be the last great Hitchcock film, and it is great. The first 10 minutes or so is flat-out brilliant: stylish, fast, and deft. Almost cool. There are some much clunkier sequences (the horse riding stuff was ridiculous) but unlike his next movie, the bland, aimless Torn Curtain (1966), this one is decidedly Hitchcockian.

“I’m still a little hoarse”. Marnie says this to her mother over the phone, and I’m convinced it’s a pun about how alienated she is from humans that she can only relate to horses. Like Frenzy (1972), and Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), this is one of the overtly Freudian Hitchcock movies, where shit like that is definitely fair game in terms of interpretation.

It’s also one of those confounding color based scavenger hunt movies, where different colors mean different things. This one is easier than Topaz (1969): Red is psychological trauma, and green (its complement) is what she uses to self-medicate. What’s yellow, though? What’s blue? That’s why I hate this game.

The director makes one his famous on-screen cameos at about minute 17: he appears as a taking car, going “beep beep” and driving down the road.

I give it 3.75 pecans out of a possible 5 pecans.

A vengeful fog

Aristotle says that anger is a desire for revenge, and he is right, though angry people will tend to call it by another name. Anger inclines people to apply exalted labels (“justice,” “accountability”) to acts of vengeance; it is a fog in which bad things look good, just because someone else did bad things first. Consider, for example, how people who would otherwise think it patently immoral to mock others’ physical appearance often feel free to do so when the target has been deemed unjust.

Anger also leads people to see victims of injustice in a noble light—as though being wronged morally improved a person, instead of distorting their psyche by reorganizing it around moral injury.

Agnes Callard

For the record, the point of the article this comes from is not that it’s wrong to get angry. It’s more that people will react differently to the same event, and that’s not wrong.

A life’s work

If there’s one truth in this life, it’s that you simply can’t win. The most you can achieve is to make a nuisance of yourself, for a very short time.

K.J. Parker

The Naked Spur (1953)

An episodic, avarice-driven, Rocky Mountain western directed by Anthony Mann. James Stewart is an ordinary man (no badge) who captures a murderer to collect the bounty, and accidentally gathers a group of shareholders along the way.

Robert Ryan is the captured criminal, whose job is to sow mistrust, and use Janet Leigh’s wiles to try to escape. He has a shit-eating grin on his face the entire movie that really makes you hate him.

There are a couple dangerous stunts: in one, a stuntman falls off his horse and gets visibly tangled in the horse’s legs; uncomfortable to watch.

The music uses a snatch of “Beautiful Dreamer” as a leitmotif. It plays once when the camera is leering at Janet Leigh asleep, and another just after Ryan describes Millard Mitchell’s corpse as “asleep in the sun”. Musical puns.

It’s implied that Stewart’s bounty hunter and Ryan’s criminal have a history, but it’s never explained. We’re told that Stewart doesn’t bear Ryan any particular enmity, he just wants the money. The wanted poster clearly says “dead or alive”, but Stewart repeatedly passes up the opportunity to kill Ryan, despite the obvious threat he poses. The ending makes us think Stewart’s character was working through some shit, and never really had his heart in the bounty hunting game anyway. What would he have done if everything had gone according to plan?

The title must come from the one scene where Stewart uses his spur like a ninja star to slice open Robert Ryan’s face. I’m not sure how a naked spur is different from a regular spur.

The ending is the same as the beginning: climbing up a rocky hill under fire. This is also the way my favorite Mann western, Winchester ’73, ended as well.

Why is this a classic western? It hits a lot of the comfortable, reassuring western tropes, but it also has a sense of malice, cynicism, and psychological depth. You could say it’s proto-revisionist because it calls into question the motivations of the classic cowboy protagonist, but I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s an unapologetic, unreconstructed western, and that that definition can include the above.

I give it 3.5 dishonorable discharges out of a possible 5 dishonorable discharges.

TransSiberian (2008)

This review may contain spoilers.

Watched TransSiberian (2008), a Hitchcockian train thriller.

The theme is secrets: Emily Mortimer plays a recovering chica mala with a growing list of secrets. Her husband, Woody Harrelson, is a good-natured twerp who doesn’t care about them. They’re traveling from China to Moscow on a train, and they get adopted by a couple of greasy nomads with secrets of their own. After an absence so long you forget he’s in the movie, Ben Kingsley arrives to bring things to a climax: he’s got secrets too.

In the end, Mortimer lies to Woody about her secrets, but confesses to Kate Mara so that she can buy a lake house in Vancouver.

The cinematography brands this movie as part of era where a lot of digital films looked very unpleasant. Everything looked muddy, and the highlights on human skin looked green: at the end of the movie two blonde people appear, and it’s unnerving. Like The Albino from The Princess Bride (1987), but radioactive. I checked on two different displays, because it was so bad I thought my TV must be broken.

Trains remain a great setting for thrillers, but setting a thriller on board a train automatically makes it an homage to older movies. Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Narrow Margin (1952), The 39 Steps (1935), etc, are all present here, either directly or through a network of influences. In fairness, there really aren’t a lot of new scenes to write for passengers on a train, or unprecedented ways to shoot them. Unstoppable (2010) and Snowpiercer (2013) are innovations in the genre, but how many more such brainstorms can we reasonably expect in the future?

I give it 3.5 tribal tattoos out of a possible 5 tribal tattoos

★★★½

Perfection

In a perfect world, we’d all lie blind and motionless in stacked coffins filled with pudding.  It would be dark and warm and nobody would have to compete with anybody and also the government would pay for the pudding. 

Erik Wolpaw (oldmanmurray.com)

The dead

We take everything they had, which is all right. And spit, most often, on their opinions, which I suppose is all right too. But we ought to remember now and then how much of what we have we got from them.

Gene Wolfe

Halloween (1978)

According to John Carpenter, this is definitely not a movie about someone who murders teens because they have sex. You would be forgiven for thinking otherwise, because literally every beat of every scene in the entire movie is perfectly consistent with that reading.

I won’t question the director. Instead I’ll side with Donald Pleasence, the only person who thinks he understands Michael Myers. His view is that Myers is more like a manifestation of fate: implacable, incomprehensible, unstoppable as the train that coincidentally roars by just after his arrival is announced. Neither good nor evil, he stands outside of morality, like, I dunno, like a creep in a mask leering through a window at night.

This works with the story, and explains why he seems to know what people are going to do next. A good example is the scene where all of Jamie Lee Curtis’ friends’ bodies are arranged such that she will uncover them one by one, and end up standing in the exact spot where Myers can emerge from the shadows right next to her. Sure, that’s how movies work anyway, but I got the strong sense that Myers has some kind of supernatural intelligence along with his patience.

It’s funny that people appear to have a problem with his unexplained ability to drive a car: that’s what you find hard to believe?

Economics

“Every man, woman and child, regardless of age, ability, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or social class was valuable and must be treated as such. His task, he realized, was finding someone to buy them all.”

K.J. Parker

The necromancer

The necromancer said that he had often entered magic circles that he had never before witnessed anything on such a scale, and he tried to persuade me to join him in consecrating a book to the devil. He said it would make our fortunes, because we could ask the demons to show us the treasures of which the earth is full and so we would obtain great riches. He added that all that business about love was stupid and useless, and did not lead anywhere. I replied that I would be only too willing to do what he asked, if I knew any Latin.

He kept on trying to persuade me, all the same; and he said that a knowledge of Latin was not worth having, and that if he wanted he could have found plenty of people who knew Latin, but that he had never met anyone as resolute as I was, and that I would be wise to listen to his advice. We went on talking in this strain till we reached our homes; and all that night every one of us dreamed about devils.

Benvenuto Cellini

The fall

And autumn’s grand excesses were described:
all golden things cast into summer’s grave.

Harry Martinson

Dedication to craft

She drank her wine, looking at me over the rim of the glass. It’s a mannerism that has made her very popular with men over the years, and I guess it’s like the violin: you have to keep practicing even when you’re not performing to an audience.

K.J. Parker

I’ve seen the future

Europe visibly aspires to be governed by an American commission. Its entire policy is directed to that end. Not knowing how to rid ourselves of our history, we will be relieved of it by a fortunate people who have almost none. They are a happy people and they will force their happiness on us.

Paul Valéry

Ben Johnson

When I left Oklahoma, I wasn’t even sure which direction Hollywood was, but I could ride a horse pretty good. I had no formal education to speak of. I was a cowboy from the time I hit the ground. I knew if a cow weighed 1,000 pounds and bought $10 a hundred, I knew how much that was. But I was fortunate because people accepted my character. I ran my life a certain way. I didn’t hobnob with the elites because I didn’t do drugs and I didn’t drink a lot of whiskey . . . oh, I might take a drink now and then, but you know what I mean.

Ben Johnson

Progress

The world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of truth – that the error and truth are simply opposite. They are nothing of the sort. What the world turns to, when it is cured on one error, is usually simply another error, and maybe one worse than the first one.

Mencken

Books

The books I love best can be read backwards or sideways. Can be read closed, or gazing out a window.

James Richardson

Runaway spaceship as metaphor

A man from High Command stands amid the people
in the great assembly-halls abaft.
He pleads with them not to despair, but view their fate
in the clear light of science.
He maintains that it is not the first time this has happened.
Sixty years ago a large goldonder
with fourteen thousand souls on board was lost,
had instrument-failure heading for Orion
and plunged with rapidly increasing speed
toward Jupiter, got swallowed in its wastelands
and buried in that giant star’s dense husk,
its evil death-quilt of gelid hydrogen
which to a depth of near ten thousand miles
armors that devil-star in helium and cold.
It could have turned out just as badly here.
But we are favored people. We’ve not crashed
on any star or stellar satellite.
Instead we have our trek ahead of us,
a lifelong journey onward to an end
which would have come in any case, and comes.

Harry Martinson, from Aniara

We call upon the author

So that’s why prayers don’t work: God doesn’t speak English,
doesn’t speak anything. His books are translations
from something not language, since to begin a sentence
is to drive from glare into the dimness of a tunnel,
losing the view of the harbor, the skyline, the heavens
(the universe of all you’ve left unsaid),
and what can God know of ignorance,
who cannot feel a single, solitary thing
as we do: as, for a moment, all there is?

James Richardson

2016

It was almost like codependency: Trump would say something very bad, and they would then write in big capitals, “This is appalling and disgusting.” And outside of all that, the big forces of power stormed on. And from the moment when both left and right and the mainstream of politics collapsed together, people who were hurting and feeling lonely and anxious and uncertain were offered no alternative, and along came Trump and Brexit and—I’m going to use a bad word here—they were offered a very big button that said “Fuck off” on it, and can you blame them for pressing it? Sometimes things are very simple. That’s what they did.

Adam Curtis

Immortals

H.L. Mencken:

Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a time when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter today? And who of Huitzilopochtli? In one year – and it is no more than five hundred years ago – 50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest. Huitzilopochtli, like many other gods, had no human father; his mother was a virtuous widow; he was born of an apparently innocent flirtation that she carried out with the sun.

When he frowned, his father, the sun, stood still. When he roared with rage, earthquakes engulfed whole cities. When he thirsted he was watered with 10,000 gallons of human blood. But today Huitzilopochtli is as magnificently forgotten as Allen G. Thurman. Once the peer of Allah, Buddha and Wotan, he is now the peer of Richmond P. Hobson, Alton B. Parker, Adelina Patti, General Weyler and Tom Sharkey.

Speaking of Huitzilopochtli recalls his brother Tezcatlipoca. Tezcatlipoca was almost as powerful; he consumed 25,000 virgins a year.

Lead me to his tomb: I would weep, and hang a couronne des perles. But who knows where it is? Or where the grave of Quetzalcoatl is? Or Xiuhtecuhtli? Or Centeotl, that sweet one? Or Tlazolteotl, the goddess of love? Of Mictlan? Or Xipe? Or all the host of Tzitzimitl? Where are their bones? Where is the willow on which they hung their harps? In what forlorn and unheard-of Hell do they await their resurrection morn? Who enjoys their residuary estates? Or that of Dis, whom Caesar found to be the chief god of the Celts? Of that of Tarves, the bull? Or that of Moccos, the pig? Or that of Epona, the mare? Or that of Mullo, the celestial jackass? There was a time when the Irish revered all these gods, but today even the drunkest Irishman laughs at them.

But they have company in oblivion: the Hell of dead gods is as crowded
as the Presbyterian Hell for babies. Damona is there, and Esus, and
Drunemeton, and Silvana, and Dervones, and Adsullata, and Deva, and
Bellisima, and Uxellimus, and Borvo, and Grannos, and Mogons. All mighty gods in their day, worshipped by millions, full of demands and impositions, able to bind and loose – all gods of the first class. Men labored for generations to build vast temples to them – temples with stones as large as hay-wagons.

The business of interpreting their whims occupied thousands of priests,
bishops, archbishops. To doubt them was to die, usually at the stake.
Armies took to the field to defend them against infidels; villages were burned, women and children butchered, cattle were driven off. Yet in the end they all withered and died, and today there is none so poor to do them reverence.

What has become of Sutekh, once the high god of the whole Nile Valley? What has become of:

Resheph, Anath, Ashtoreth, El, Nergal, Nebo, Ninib, Melek, Ahijah, Isis, Ptah, Anubis, Baal, Astarte, Hadad, Addu, Shalem, Dagon, Sharaab, Yau, Amon-Re, Osiris, Sebek, Molech?

All there were gods of the highest eminence. Many of them are mentioned with fear and trembling in the Old Testament. They ranked, five or six thousand years ago, with Yahweh Himself; the worst of them stood far higher than Thor. Yet they have all gone down the chute, and with them the following:

Bilé, Ler, Arianrhod, Morrigu, Govannon, Gunfled, Sokk-mimi, Nemetona, Dagda, Robigus, Pluto, Ops, Meditrina, Vesta

You may think I spoof. That I invent the names. I do not. Ask the rector to lend you any good treatise on comparative religion: You will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest standing and dignity-gods of civilized peoples-worshiped and believed in by millions. All were omnipotent, omniscient and immortal.

And all are dead.

It droppeth as the gentle rain

The squirrel struggling in the road. Something very deep says If it can’t live it should die. I kill it with a stick. Maybe to stop my own suffering, but I don’t think so: I’d rather walk away. Maybe Nature wants me to think this way about my own kind? The thought struggles in me. I kill it with a stick.

James Richardson

The role of the lictor

“We are not cruel. We take no delight in what we do, except in doing it well, which means doing it quickly and doing neither more nor less than the law instructs us. We obey the judges, who hold their offices because the people consent to it. Some individuals tell us we should do nothing of what we do, and that no one should do it. They say that punishment inflicted with cold blood is a greater crime than any crime our clients could have committed. ‘There may be justice in that, but it is a justice that would destroy the whole Commonwealth. No one could feel safe and no one could be safe, and in the end the people would rise up – at first against the thieves and the murderers, and then against anyone who offended the popular ideas of propriety, and at last against mere strangers and outcasts. Then they would be back to the old horrors of stoning and burning, in which every man seeks to outdo his neighbor for fear he will be thought tomorrow to hold some sympathy for the wretch dying today.”

Gene Wolfe

The Roman lictor carries a fasces (a symbolic representation of the authority of the state) and carries out the sentences of the magistrate.

Critics

We don’t make movies for critics, since they don’t pay to see them anyhow.

Charles Bronson

Bronson spoke four languages, flew 25 missions in a B-29 bomber in the Pacific theater, and was an accomplished artist under his birth name, Buchinsky.

Self-serving

Every stink that fights the ventilator thinks it is Don Quixote.

Stanislau Lem

Worldliness

Some are called, others manage as well as they can.

Czeslaw Milosz

The Columbo Method

My father has zero intellectual insecurities… It has never crossed his mind to be concerned that the world thinks he’s an idiot. He’s not in that game. So if he doesn’t understand something, he just asks you. He doesn’t care if he sounds foolish. He will ask the most obvious question without any sort of concern about it... So he asks lots and lots of dumb, in the best sense of that word, questions. He’ll say to someone, ‘I don’t understand. Explain that to me.’ He’ll just keep asking questions until he gets it right, and I grew up listening to him do this in every conceivable setting. If my father had met Bernie Madoff, he would never have invested money with him because he would have said, ‘I don’t understand’ a hundred times. ‘I don’t understand how that works’, in this kind of dumb, slow voice. ‘I don’t understand, sir. What is going on?’

Malcolm Gladwell

Friendship and enmity

[quoting Chilo] “I was judge with two others, and a friend’s life was at stake. Therefore, either my friend must suffer capital punishment or violence must be done to the law. I considered for a long time how to remedy so difficult a situation. The course which I adopted seemed, in comparison with the alternative, the less objectionable; I myself secretly voted for conviction, but I persuaded my fellow judges to vote for acquittal. Thus I myself in a matter of such moment did my duty both as a judge and as a friend. But my action torments me with the fear that there may be something of treachery and guilt in having recommended to others, in the same case, at the same time, and in a common duty, a course for them contrary to what I thought best for myself.”

Gellius

Pantheon

I know some people think of us as gods, and maybe we are. I’m not saying we’re not gods. But we never got a big head about it, because we knew we could be replaced by other gods in about two seconds, anytime, probably for less money.

John Swartzwelder

On the original writing staff of The Simpsons.

Reinforcement

A good film seen a second time seems even better; we tend to take repetitions for absolutes. Our first reading of famous books is really the second, since we already know them.

Borges

Whaddaya got?

Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle.

Francis Fukuyama

The horror

The horror of the Twentieth Century was the size of each new event, and the paucity of its reverberation.

Norman Mailer

Nature

Nature was here something savage and awful though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandseled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever.

Thoreau, The Maine Woods

Unhandseled means untouched, or pure, but has the sense of being unchristened, or even unblessed, since a handsel is a gift you give to kick off a new enterprise. Unspoiled; virgin.

In vindication of the oracle

This inquisition has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind, and has given occasion also to many calumnies. And I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name by way of illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. And so I go about the world, obedient to the god, and search and make inquiry into the wisdom of any one, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise; and my occupation quite absorbs me, and I have no time to give either to any public matter of interest or to any concern of my own, but I am in utter poverty by reason of my devotion to the god.

Socrates

Continuity of thought

I find my marginalia in an old book and realize that for decades I’ve been walking in a circle.

James Richardson

Manifestation

As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.

Stephen Graham

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, XX

September – November, 2020

The Last of Sheila (1973)

Watched The Last of Sheila (1973), an ensemble murder mystery in which deeply unlikeable widower James Coburn invites 6 quote-unquote friends to a week long trip aboard a yacht. They all have secrets; one of them is his wife’s murderer, and through an unnecessarily complex scavenger hunt, the killer’s identity will, he hopes, be revealed. Script written by Norman Bates and Sweeney Todd. The film’s title is a clue, but then what isn’t? The hero is the child molester, believe it or not. Here is another movie, like The Player (1992), in which the existence of the movie is part of the movie. Like Sleuth (1974), it’s about a bastard with an overly elaborate plot that goes off the rails. Great line about filming Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in Dyan Cannon’s mouth, truly a classic bon mot. A lot of things are tipped off, but you don’t realize it until too late. James Mason gets strangled by puppets. I give it 4 chintzy toast racks out of a possible 5 chintzy toast racks.

Magnum Force (1973)

Watched Magnum Force (1973), the sequel to Dirty Harry (1971). Harry Callahan has to go up against a police death squad carrying out vigilante justice, to prove that even though he’s very, very tough, he always follows the law. This one lacked the sweaty energy that made the first movie so fun. You could tell they were thinking of making more sequels, because there’s no point at which Eastwood is ever really in danger. I give it 3 limitations out of a possible 5 limitations.

The Narrow Margin (1952)

Watched The Narrow Margin (1952), a noir train procedural in which a detective must escort the wife of a mobster across the country on board a train full of assassins. During the fight scene, there’s a shot where the perspective changes from third person to first person (foot) to third person again. There are also some excellent transitions using the train windows. There’s more to the fat man than meets the eye. What makes the movie fun is that it’s more interested in the train and its passengers than in the plot. How thin can a sandwich get? I give it 3.25 Pullman berths out of a possible 5 Pullman berths.

The Old Guard (2020)

Watched The Old Guard (2020), a tactical movement superhero movie starring Charlize Theron. In this sequel to Highlander (1986), Theron is an immortal mercenary who only kills bad people. For the most part, the characters are realistic (movie realistic), except the bad guy, who is a cartoon. The original script called for him to have an asthmatic dog who laughs at all his jokes. He lives in a penthouse on top of his company’s skyscraper. When he successfully tricks them into thinking he’s escaped, he stops them before they leave so that they have another chance to kill him. How hard would it be to set up underwater listening posts to find the source of endless screaming off the coast of Massachusetts? The movie wants to assert that saving people’s lives centuries in the past produces utilitarian happiness in the future, but what if Andy also saved Hitler’s great-grandmother? Good fight scenes. Chiwetel Ejiofor is at least as guilty as Booker, but isn’t punished. Theron has set herself up well for sequels in which she may not have to do as much stunt work: smart. Let’s see Charlize Theron as Tara Chace in an adaptation of Rucka’s spy series Queen and Country! I give it 3.5 baklavas out of a possible 5 baklavas.

Death on the Nile (1978)

Watched Death on the Nile (1978), an Agatha Christie mystery starring Peter Ustinov as Hercules Porridge, the French detective. An intricate and unlikely mystery unfolds, this time on a boat in Egypt. George Kennedy could have picked up any other two members of the cast and conked their heads together like coconuts. Many of the nefarious characters in the story get exactly what they wanted, and would have killed for, but without the consequences. David Niven plays Watson, and in a few years from the fictional 1937 of the story, he and Ustinov would serve together in non-fictional WWII. Olivia Hussey is here, but unlike in English class, she is not nude. Mia Farrow is very good (I think). I may have seen this one before: I guessed the answer, which doesn’t happen often. The part I can relate to is when Poirot falls asleep in his chair. I give it 3.5 bathroom cobras out of a possible 5 bathroom cobras.

Evil Under the Sun (1983)

Watched Evil Under the Sun (1983), an Agatha Christie mystery starring Peter Ustinov as Hercules Parrot, the French detective. An intricate and unlikely mystery unfolds, this time on a resort island in the Adriatic. Everybody has a bathing suit, and an alibi. The rugged landscape offers plenty of shot-framing opportunities. James Mason was wasted: I don’t mean he was on drugs, I mean why not use him more if you cast him. Dianna Rigg sings a song. The killer packed a set of extravagant clothes they could not have expected to need. There were too many coincidences required for this mystery, and everybody hated each other the whole time. I give it 3 monogrammed bathing costumes out of a possible 5 monogrammed bathing costumes.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Watched The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) a Powell and Pressburger film about a man who believes wars should start at midnight. Not a Colonel, no eponymous deaths, and no significant blimps. Pressburger himself was the enemy alien; was Powell the general? Beautiful, sprawling, humane. Great, but also fun. Roger Livesy’s voice grew on me. If an old man invites you to dinner, you will regret not going with them. The shots of the trophy heads appearing on the walls. Prisoners of war listening to classical music. To assure victory over your rival, tip the musicians in beer. I give it 4.5 mustaches out of a possible 5 mustaches.

The 39 Steps (1935)

Watched The 39 Steps (1935), Hitchcock’s light spy thriller as a metaphor for marriage. Robert Donat thinks he’s going home with a prostitute, but she’s a spy (pardon, an agent) and pretty soon he’s on the run from some killers. They go to Scotland, where there is a charming innkeeper and wife. I kept expecting the twist to be that Donat’s character was also an agent, since for a civilian he is extremely cool under fire. Madeleine Carroll plays a blonde woman in a Hitchcock movie. Good looking sandwiches in this picture. There are some longer takes, and a famous sequence around a dinner table at a farmhouse. The 39 steps is an organization of foreign spies working in Britain. Now you know. The real question is, what causes pip in poultry? I give it 3.25 plates of herring out of a possible 5 plates of herring.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Watched The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), a courtroom procedural about whether Eddie Redmayne or Sacha Baron Cohen will take the stand. Good script by veteran courtroom-yelling scribe Aaron Sorkin. There’s a scene where the whole courtroom erupts while the judge pounds his gavel and screams “Order in the court! Order in the court!”. I’m sorry to say that real historical footage was intercut with filmed footage of the same scene, which did not work. On the other hand, there’s a great monologue about why I don’t like Abbie Hoffman. I give it 3.25 cherry bombs out of a possible 5 cherry bombs.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

Watched The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), a deconstructed Sherlock Holmes story in which Sigmund Freud helps him overcome a spiralling cocaine addiction and, through hypnotherapy, discovers the source of his hatred of Moriarty. Robert Duvall plays Watson, with what seemed like a more than passable British accent. In the middle of the movie is a small mystery, and an unnecessary sword fight. I wonder what real Freud would say about all those trains, snakes, sword fights, and needles. They are ambushed by the Lipizzaner stallions, and movie Freud says “These are the most intelligent horses in the world, and they have been trained TO KILL!”. I give it 3.5 wimples out of a possible 5 wimples.1

Rebecca (1940)

Watched Rebecca (1940), Alfred Hitchcock’s ghost story without a ghost. In this movie, Joan Fontaine marries dashing, troubled widower Laurence Olivier, but feels she cannot live up to the legend of Olivier’s dead wife. For once in a Hitchcock movie, it is everyone except the male protagonist who is obsessed with bringing back a vanished woman. Mrs. Danvers is a great villain, and Manderley would make a wonderful AirBnb. Good luck getting floorboards that wide these days. Despite it being a part of the culture, and despite this movie influencing 80 years of successors, I didn’t really see the twist coming, and was pleasantly surprised by the turn it took. I give it 4.25 drumsticks out of a possible 5 drumsticks.(edited)1

Stake Land (2010)

Watched Stake Land (2010), a post-apocalyptic vampire movie on a budget. A Cool Guy Vampire Hunter named Mister takes a young man as his protégé, and they have an episodic journey toward supposed safety in Canada. In this film, vampires are basically the same thing as zombies. There was no need to introduce a specific villain: the antagonist should be the hostile world they’re traveling through. I like the premise, but no single thing about this movie is very good. Having established that you can hide from vampires in car trunks, why I give it 2.5 ice cream cones out of a possible 5 ice cream cones.

Deathtrap (1982)

Watched Deathtrap (1982), murder twist-em-up in which Michael Caine wants to kill Christopher Reeve and steal his play. Like The Player (1992) and The Last of Sheila (1973), a movie that tells the story of its own creation. Or, close to it in this case. Dyan Cannon was nominated for a Razzie, but I thought her performance was good, if odd. Helga Ten Dorp is the psychic, Norwegian Jessica Fletcher. So many killers would get away with it if they didn’t open the door for their neighbors. I loved the final twist ending. I give it 3.25 ginger ales out of a possible 5 ginger ales.

Klute (1971)

Watched Klute (1971), a paranoia film in which Jane Fonda earns an Oscar. This is a movie about a private detective from a small town coming to the big city to track down a missing person, and befriending a complicated prostitute who is being stalked by a serial killer. It takes a lot to get me to notice a movie’s score, but I noticed it here because it was so creepy and alienating, though not in a bad or unskilled way. There has to be a therapist and a hidden tape recorder in order to give characters an opportunity to open up. New York is like a character in this movie: a disgusting character who badly needs to be cleaned. Donald Sutherland stands around being lanky. Like The Hot Rock (1972), you can see the World Trade Center being constructed in the background. I give it 3.25 trundle beds out of a possible 5 trundle beds.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Rewatched The Man Who Would Be King (1975), in which ex-soldiers in British India bring a box of rifles to an isolated country and try to plunder it. Both Caine and Connery are great. I didn’t remember all the masonic stuff, or how satirical it is. The best stuff is all the picaresque adventures in the first half of the movie, before things get real. That’s Michael Caine’s real wife, and Sean Connery’s real scalp. Christopher Plummer plays Rudyard Kipling. I give it 3.75 rubies out of a possible 5 rubies.

The Great Train Robbery (1978)

Rewatched The Great Train Robbery (1978), a Victorian heist movie starring Sean Connery. Connery is wearing a wig in this one, and what looks like a fake beard, but may not be. This is probably my favorite acting role of his, and he did some great stunts too. Still a winner, with every beat of a good heist movie represented: gathering the crew, casing the joint, rat fights, pulling the job, the betrayal, a public hanging, climbing a wall, perverts, and a dead cat. Donald Sutherland’s British accent is awful, innit. I give it 4 top hats out of a possible 5 top hats.

The League of Gentlemen (1960)

Watched The League of Gentlemen (1960), a polite heist movie by Basil Dearden. In this movie, a polite British man recruits a group of disgraced but polite WWII veterans to organize a polite bank robbery with military politeness. The robbery succeeds, but while doing so, one of the bank robbers was so polite that they provided evidence that allows the army to gently arrest them. The movie should have been called The Golden Fleece. My old friend Roger Livesy is in this movie, and that’s the same painting of Deborah Kerr from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) in Hyde’s home. I give it 3 ladders out of a possible 5 ladders.

Sales

In ancient annals we find this tradition about the Sibylline Books. An old woman, a perfect stranger, came to king Tarquin the Proud, bringing nine books; she declared that they were oracles of the gods and that she wished to sell them. Tarquin inquired the price; the woman demanded an immense and exorbitant sum: the king laughed her to scorn, believing her to be in her dotage. Then she placed a lighted brazier before him, burned three of the books to ashes, and asked whether he would buy the remaining six at the same price. But at this Tarquin laughed all the more and said that there was now no doubt that the old woman was crazy. Upon that the woman at once burned up three more books and again calmly made the same request, that he would buy the remaining three at the original figure. Tarquin now became serious and more thoughtful, and realising that such persistence and confidence were not to be treated lightly, he bought the three books that were left at as high a price as had been asked for all nine. Now it is a fact that after then leaving Tarquin, that woman was never seen again anywhere. The three books were deposited in a shrine and called “Sibylline”; to them the Fifteen resort whenever the immortal gods are to be consulted as to the welfare of the State.

Gellius

Confidence and persistence have been used as destructive tools — weapons, I guess— as long as modern humans existed. Was the woman insane, or just a very confident huckster? One thing we know for certain is that those books were not oracles, so she must have been one or the other. It may be that insanity and supreme confidence are the same thing. The world is the way it is because people can be manipulated by confidence, and almost nobody is immune to unflinching confidence over a long enough period.

Forcing functions

Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.

Milton Friedman

Word and deed

The philosopher Favorinus thus addressed a young man who was very fond of old words and made a display in his ordinary, everyday conversation of many expressions that were quite too unfamiliar and archaic: […] Live by all means according to the manners of the past, but speak in the language of the present, and always remember and take to heart what Gaius Caesar, a man of surpassing talent and wisdom, wrote in the first book of his treatise On Analogy: ‘Avoid, as you would a rock, a strange and unfamiliar word.’ “

Gellius

Naptha-light

Rough Samuel and sleek wheedling James were, and are not. […] The Bottles they drank out of are all broken, the Chairs they sat on all rotted and burnt; the very Knives and Forks they ate with have rusted to the heart, and become brown oxide of iron, and mingled with the indiscriminate clay. All, all has vanished; in every deed and truth, like that baseless fabric of Prospero’s air-vision. Of the Mitre Tavern nothing but the bare walls remain there: of London, of England, of the World, nothing but the bare walls remain; and these also decaying (were they of adamant), only slower. The mysterious River of Existence rushes on: a new Billow thereof has arrived, and lashes wildly as ever round the old embankments; but the former Billow with its loud, mad eddyings, where is it? Where! Now this Book of Boswell’s, this is precisely a revocation of the edict of Destiny; so that Time shall not utterly, not so soon by several centuries, have dominion over us. A little row of Naphtha-lamps, with its line of Naphtha-light, burns clear and holy through the dead Night of the Past: they who are gone are still here; though hidden they are revealed, though dead they yet speak. There it shines, that little miraculously lamplit Pathway; shedding its feebler and feebler twilight into the boundless dark Oblivion, for all that our Johnson touched has become illuminated for us: on which miraculous little Pathway we can still travel, and see wonders.

Thomas Carlyle

Monadism

The Dakotan tribes of North America found evidence of circular forms in nature nearly everywhere, from the shape of birds’ nests to the course of the stars. The Pueblo Indians of the American south-west, by contrast, tended to apprehend landscapes in rectangular terms: they found parallelograms and rhomboids to be ubiquitous a form which they almost certainly derived from the regular dihedral shapes into which the red rock of the south-western deserts erodes. Jonathan Raban has written beautifully about how the recurring unit of the art of the Indians of the British Columbian coast is the lozenge, which he relates to the distinctive shape into which light forms when it falls on gently moving water.

Britain and Ireland have produced their own versions of this natural monadism, this obsessive hunting after singularity in nature. Thomas Browne, in his slender work of 1658, The Garden of Cyrus, proposed that the ‘quincunx’, the disposition of five items with four at the corners of a square and the fifth in its centre, existed with such ubiquity thar it ought properly to be considered the figure upon which the universe was constructed. Browne found the quincunx repeating itself throughout natural and artificial forms in five-leaved flowering plants, and in astral motion and took it as hermetic proof of a Universal Spirit of Nature. In 1917, the mathematician and biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson published an elegant book, On Growth and Form, in which he proposed that the form of the spiral had its play throughout the natural world: in seashells, spiderwebs, the distribution of seeds in the head of a daisy, the curve of a beaver’s tooth, the turns of a narwhal’s horn and an elephant’s tusk, in a pine-cone’s configuration of scales, and in the curve of a sea wave as it broke.

Robert Macfarlane

The First Person

Kipling became a political poet because he preferred writing in the second or third person to writing in the first person. In the 834 pages of the collected poems there is exactly one lyric written in propria persona, and that is the final one… The poems give delight frequently, but they also raise disquiet. To read them… is to suspect that meditation and the first person have rather paupered English poetry. The hermetic lyric of personal emotion and its sloppier successor, the psychological self-search, account for an appalling percentage of all verse.

Turner Cassity

Not found by me; I stole it from Anecdotal Evidence

Ink & Paper

We all came into this world naked. The rest is all drag.

RuPaul

Back pockets

He wrote Yesterday in 1964 and kept in his back pocket for a year, despite intense pressure to generate material, mainly because he couldn’t quite believe he was capable of writing such a classic-sounding melody. Once he realised that he had done just that, it must have been like being solemnly informed he was a superhero. From 1964 to 1968 McCartney’s development curve – musically, lyrically, artistically – is almost vertical, a rocket taking off.

Ian Leslie

An absolute minimum

In my experience the spider is the smallest creature whose gaze can be felt.

Iris Murdoch

Convergence

The political phenomena of our time are accompanied and complicated by a change in scale without parallel, or rather by a change in the order of things. The world to which we are beginning to belong, both as men and as nations, is not a replica of the world with which we were familiar, The system of causes which governs the fate of us all, extending from now on over the whole globe, makes all of it resound with each concussion: there are no more local problems, no more finite questions to be dealt with on the spot.

History, as it was formerly understood, was presented as a series of parallel chronological tables with accidental transversals indicated here and there between them. A few attempts at synchronization gave no results other than a sort of demonstration of their futility. What was going on in Peking in Caesar’s time, or in Zambesi in Napoleon’s, was going on on another planet. But melodic history is no longer possible. All political themes are entangled and every event that takes place immediately assumes a multitude of simultaneous and inseparable meanings.

Paul Valéry

Absolute commitment

But it’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think.  Note the way “up close and personal” profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life–outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence. An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very small.

David Foster Wallace, The String Theory

Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design

These are the excerpts that hit home the most.

  • To design a spacecraft right takes an infinite amount of effort. This is why it’s a good idea to design them to operate when some things are wrong .
  • At the start of any design effort, the person who most wants to be team leader is least likely to be capable of it.
  • There is never a single right solution. There are always multiple wrong ones, though.
  • Design is based on requirements. There’s no justification for designing something one bit “better” than the requirements dictate.
  • A bad design with a good presentation is doomed eventually. A good design with a bad presentation is doomed immediately.
  • (von Tiesenhausen’s Law of Engineering Design) If you want to have a maximum effect on the design of a new engineering system, learn to draw. Engineers always wind up designing the vehicle to look like the initial artist’s concept.
  • (McBryan’s Law) You can’t make it better until you make it work.

Dave Akin

Vast souls

He rose and turned toward the lights of town. The tidepools bright as smelterpots among the dark rocks where the phosphorescent seacrabs clambered back. Passing through the salt grass he looked back. The horse had not moved. A ship’s light winked in the swells. The colt stood against the horse with its head down and the horse was watching, out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Sounds like a plan

Three films a day, three books a week and records of great music would be enough to make me happy to the day I die.

Francois Truffaut

Regarding the Third Law

I often find myself intoning Clarke’s Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, or anyway half of it, since everyone’s heard it already and interrupts. Actually the technology doesn’t have to be very advanced. I drive a car and grasp the basics of internal combustion engines but I still treat mine as halfway between pet and malevolent deity, muttering reassurances, curses and spells. Maybe a chip designer gets computers well enough that they are purely technology, but he can’t know that much about meteorology or gene-splicing or, well, poems. What differentiates technology from magic is not our knowledge but our faith: that someone else understands.

James Richardson

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, XVII

June, 2020

The Trip to Greece (2020)

Watched The Trip to Greece (2020), the fourth installment in a series of dadcoms about two British comedians making a travel documentary. The format is still great, but I think they are running out of new impressions to do. In this one, they’re traveling around Greece, visiting locations from The Odyssey, while things in their real lives loosely mimic events in the poem (siege, sirens, hades, Telemachus, swimming). I was on the lookout for a cyclops, but didn’t see one. Lots of leering at waitresses. The theme is about dealing with your own mortality: Coogan does it by seeking affirmation, Brydon ignores it by making jokes. They deflate each other. The Ray Winstone bit was my favorite in this one. Lots of seafood. I give it 3.75 linen shirts out of a possible 5 linen shirts.

Slow apocalypse

The cattle herding was so successful that it spread south from the mountains. Speculation that the herdsmen invited the desert through overgrazing is unfair. Older and larger climatic forces were at work. Around 2000 B.C., the weather simply shifted. A dryness settled tentatively across the Saharan lowlands, and crept into the mountains, and slowly deepened. There were years then as now when the rains returned and the vegetation thickened. But the desert was on its way.

You might expect people not to have noticed such gradual impoverishment. But these people lived surrounded by their art, the now-ancestral celebrations of a bountiful land: etching scarred the rocks for hundreds of miles; paintings endured in theindelible burnt-orange of laterite and iron oxide. The old creations must have forced people to confront their loss. Did they fight each other, hunt witches, find new ways to pray? It made no difference anyway. The lakes and rivers shrank. The big wild animals drifted south. On a cliffside near Djanet, someone drew a weeping cow, which still looks like a declaration from the end of time.

William Langewiesche

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, XVI

March, 2020

The Anderson Tapes (1971)

Watched The Anderson Tapes (1971), a comedy heist movie where burglar Sean Connery finds that after 10 years in prison, the world has changed into a farcical surveillance state. Dyan Cannon appears in the movie, and then disappears from the movie. I’m not actually sure what all the surveillance stuff meant, because despite taking up a lot of space, it had only a minor effect on the plot. Very few things are paid off. Sean Connery bravely acted without a hairpiece for the first time. A motif on synthesizer plays whenever there’s electronic equipment on screen. I wonder whether Dyan Cannon dropping the glass was on purpose or not. Not one animal in sight. Pops had a real Brooks Was Here vibe, glad things turned out well for him in the end. I give it 2 museum quality elephants out of a possible 5 museum quality elephants.

Charade (1963)

Watched Charade (1963), a witty caper movie where Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, and some bungling assassins are all trying to find a stolen fortune in Paris. Hepburn’s character is always ordering food but never eating it, and Cary Grant takes a shower with his suit on. Great script: dialog takes on a different meaning when you know the plot. Due to an error, this movie was never under copyright. Is having a clamp for a hand a superpower? Audrey Hepburn and Katherine Hepburn were not related. Low stakes, high charm movie. I give it 4 Ham, Juniors out of a possible 5 Ham, Juniors.

Hold the Dark (2019)

Watched Hold the Dark (2019), Jeremy Saulnier’s horror crime movie about Alaska. Jeffrey Wright is a retired wolf expert asked by Elvis Presley’s granddaughter (Riley Keough) to kill the wolf that killed her son. Only, she IS the wolf: metaphorically, and in naked masked form. Peter Skarsgard is typecast as the unsettlingly intense cipher. Jeffrey Wright should do his version of Taken (2008) next. Normally, if somebody coughs in a movie, it means they’re about to die of cancer. Symbols include: wolves, boots, the sky, throats, masks. Possible symbols: telephones, spaghetti, blondes, knives. The sheriff was planning on taking a trip with his wife. I give it 3.5 salt and pepper beards out of a possible 5 salt and pepper beards.

The Hot Rock (1972)

Watched The Hot Rock (1972), a comedy caper movie directed by Peter Yates. Robert Redford plays a thief who is the best, but due to bad luck he always gets caught. He assembles a team to steal a jewel, and then when it goes missing he has to plan several more increasingly elaborate heists to get it back. George Segal is good in this. So is Zero Mostel. Memorable helicopter sequence over a smoggy Manhattan skyline, as the World Trade Center is being constructed in the background. The man who directed Krull (1983) also directed Bullitt (1968). Donald Westlake wrote the novel this was based on, and William Goldman wrote the script. I give it 3.5 banana stands out of a possible 5 banana stands.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Watched Portrait of a Lady On Fire (2019), Celine Sciamma’s historical love story about French ladies. Marianne goes to an island off the coast of France to attempt to paint the portrait of Heloise, who does not want to be painted because she knows that the painting will convince a rich Milanese guy to accept her mother’s offer to marry her off. Gorgeous movie: talk about every frame a painting! The presence of the servant Sophie undercut my sympathy for the protagonist by reminding me that there were people in the 18th century with harder problems than whether they’d be unhappy in a chateau or a villa. Several outstanding tricks were played on the viewer. Good revision of Orpheus and Eurydice. I don’t think I was meant to laugh when she caught on fire. I give it 4 green dresses out of a possible 5 green dresses.

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, XV

February, 2020 (Pre-COVID)

Ford vs. Ferrari (2019)

Watched Ford vs. Ferrari (2019), which isn’t the name of the movie. In this movie for dads, cartoon character Christian Bale beats some smug cartoon Italians. The message of the movie is that if you want to sell automobiles to baby boomers, you have to empower your brand ambassadors. This movie is bad in many ways: everybody says what’s happening out loud, and the story beats are totally predictable. Everything except the racing scenes is pretty dumb. Matt Damon gives a spectacular performance as Tommy Lee Jones: when Tommy Lee Jones retires, Matt Damon should be him. Become him. Some possible historical inaccuracies: Not sure that Ford executives were actively sabotaging their team during the race. Not sure that both Carroll Shelby and Lee Iacocca were yoked as shit. I could be wrong. Tracy Letts gives a great physical meltdown. The racing scenes are amazing. I give it 3.25 black cowboy hats out of a possible 5 black cowboy hats.

Ash is Purest White (2018)

Watched Ash is Purest White (2018), Zhangke Jia’s melodrama about a woman’s life set against the background of massive government building projects in China for some reason. Qiao is the girlfriend of BIn, a gangster, and she goes to prison for him. When she gets out, he wants nothing to do with her, so she makes her own way until he shows up again, in a wheelchair, and she helps him learn to walk. Then he leaves, and the movie is over. There is a UFO as well. I’m not sure what to make of this movie: the performances by the leads were great, the footage of places I’ve never heard of is up my alley, but the plot just meandered, like it only had a few critical scenes but wanted to space them out. Brother Eryong: “You know Bin, there are only two things I care about: animal documentaries and ballroom dancing.” I gather that thermoses play a huge role in Chinese society. I give it 3.5 Cohibas out of a possible 5 Cohibas.

Experiment in Terror (1962)

Watched Experiment in Terror (1962), a Blake Edwards thriller starring Lee Remick as a woman strong-armed into helping heavy breathing serial creep Ross Martin into robbing a bank in pre-hippie San Francisco. Glenn Ford plays a straight-laced FBI agent who women find attractive, perhaps contractually? This movie blends Dragnet (1967) style reverence for tight-cropped law enforcers with a dark Freudian psychosexual weirdness, and it’s no surprise it was a remarkable influence on David Lynch. Maybe Lynch and Fincher, because this feels like a grandfather to Mindhunter (2017). Shots of the same pre-apocalyptic San Francisco as its more colorful contemporary, Vertigo (1958), which it would pair nicely with. Ross Martin, whose character is shot to death on the pitcher’s mound in Candlestick Park (what does it mean?!) went on to play Artemus Clyde Frog, née Gordon, in Wild Wild West (1965). Good telephone switching in this movie. There is never an explanation for the title. I give it 3.5 Popcorns out of a possible 5 Popcorns.

Seoul Station (2016)

Watched Seoul Station (2016), an animated prequel to the live-action Train to Busan (2016). This is a Korean zombie anime about an interconnected group of people trying and failing to survive a zombie outbreak. Thematically, I guess it’s about the idea of losing your home. Like Parasite (2019) it is pointedly about class disparity and a hidden underclass taking revenge on the bourgeoisie, by metaphorically turning everyone into them and by literally eating them. Mixing 2D and 3D animation is (almost?) never a good idea, and isn’t here either. The girl made me mad when she just refused to shut doors behind her while being chased by zombies. I’ll watch Train to Busan (2016) next. The twist ending was a surprise, didn’t come completely out of nowhere, but was still not necessary. I give it 3.5 bottles of Energy D out of a possible 5 bottles of Energy D.

Train to Busan (2016)

Watched Train to Busan (2016), Director Yoo Gong’s live-action Korean zombie train movie about class warfare, not his animated Korean zombie train movie about class warfare. The movie stars, among others, Woo-sik Choi, the teen from Parasite (2019), that Korean dark comedy about class warfare, which was made by Bong Joon-Ho, the Korean director who also made Snowpiercer (2013), a train movie about class warfare. In Train to Busan, the zombie apocalypse happens during a train ride, and people from different classes war against each other while zombies pick them off. The theme is sacrifice. They are given a very nasty set of zombie parameters: fast zombies, fast infection, hard to kill, they don’t stop to eat people, and worst of all, animals can also be zombies. Hard to see a way out of this one. The little girl does a great job, especially in that final scene. The lead guy (also the director) does a good job, as does the muscle-man. I give it 4 Alohas out of a possible 5 Alohas.

A Hard Day (2014)

Watched A Hard Day (2014), a Korean crime movie about a corrupt police detective who has a really hard day. Despite definitely being a movie, it was paced a lot like several shorter television episodes strung together, and the sound track had a TV feel to it as well. I wonder what all the drowning symbolism could mean? There’s lots of tension, but it’s the kind of tension where you’re trying to hide a dead body in your mother’s casket, and the camera cuts between you and the funeral director who’s about to see you doing it. I like the shot where you think somebody’s going to get blown up, because that’s how the camera is set up, but then something else happens instead. Good thinking going back for the bullets, butterfingers. I give it 3 scruffy dogs out of a 5 scruffy dogs.

Recognizable experiences

But now and again there appears a novel which opens up a new world not by revealing what is strange, but by revealing what is familiar… Here is a whole world of stuff which you supposed to be of its nature incommunicable, and somebody has managed to communicate it. The effect is to break down, at any rate momentarily, the solitude in which the human being lives… you feel the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being understood. ‘He knows all about me,’ you feel; ‘he wrote this specially for me’… For the moment you have got away from the lies and simplifications, the stylized, marionette-like quality of ordinary fiction, even quite good fiction, and are dealing with the recognizable experiences of human beings.

George Orwell

I really butchered the quote, in the sense of hacking it apart. It’s actually about Ulysses and Tropic of Cancer, but I took out everything specific to those books and tried to make like it was about literature in general.

The vacillator’s prayer

The peril of arguing with you is forgetting to argue with myself. Don’t make me convince you: I don’t want to believe that much.

James Richardson

Projection

Man projects into the cosmos his own nascent demand for social justice; and when from the outer spaces the magnified echo of his own voice returns to him, promising punishment for the guilty, he draws from it courage and reassurance.

E. R. Dodds

Books Read, 2020

Changing jobs and world events kept me from reading as much as last year. It wasn’t that I didn’t have time to read, it was that, for whatever reason, I didn’t have much of an urge to read much during the middle part of the year.

Fiction (18)

  • The Odyssey by Homer

    The Emily Wilson translation, which I thought was much more readable, but didn’t inspire me the way Fagles did. Looking forward to reading her Iliad when it is released.
  • Favorite Father Brown Stories by G. K. Chesterton

    The first fiction by Chesterton that I really liked, though I didn’t like every story in the book. Will probably read more Father Brown.
  • Night Soldiers by Alan Furst
  • Dark Star by Alan Furst
  • The Polish Officer by Alan Furst
  • The World at Night by Alan Furst
  • A Hero of France by Alan Furst
  • Red Gold by Alan Furst

    These Alan Furst novels, all about spies in WWII Europe, constituted all of what I read between about June and October. In the future, when I think back on the quarantine, I imagine
  • From Hell by Alan Moore

    A reread, but it’s been about 20 years. I liked it a little less this time, but not by much, and I still think it’s a masterpiece. I appreciated different things about it this time: the art, research, and logistics more than the fireworks.
  • The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
  • Castleview by Gene Wolfe
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Plague by Albert Camus
  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov

    A reread, but I didn’t remember much about it.
  • One Step from Earth by Harry Harrison
  • Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

    I hated this book. I didn’t actually finish it, but got most of the way through, and I was certainly finished with it. I don’t hate it because it’s obscene, what I hate was that it was sloppy and self-indulgent.
  • Down and Out in Purgatory by Tim Powers

Non-Fiction (16)

  • Sahara Unveiled by William Langewiesche
  • The Architecture of Happiness by Alain De Botton
  • Moral Mazes by Robert Jackall
  • Atlas of a Lost World by Craig Childs
  • Discussing Design by Adam Connor
  • The Tiger by John Vaillant
  • Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
  • Cultural Amnesia by Clive James (Essays)
  • Harmonium by Wallace Stevens (Poetry)
  • The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane
  • In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki
  • Take Ivy by Shosuke Ishizu
  • Design Is Storytelling by Ellen Lupton
  • ‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’ by Geoff Dyer
  • Super Thinking by Gabriel Weinberg
  • Farnsworth’s Classical English Style by Ward Farnsworth

Power hungers

Don’t trust the revolutionist with your freedom: he’s an authoritarian who just happens to be out of power.

James Richardson

Being of Service

I don’t know about you people, but I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.

Gavin Belson (Character on Silicon Valley)

Wilderness

The wilderness begins at the edge of my body, at the edge of my consciousness, and extends to the edge of the universe, and it is filled with menace.

Hayden Carruth

The wages of crime

In each of the hot and secret countries to which the man went he kept a harem, he tortured witnesses, he amassed shameful gold; but certainly he would have said with steady eyes that he did it to the glory of the Lord. My own theology is sufficiently expressed by asking which Lord? Anyhow, there is this about such evil, that it opens door after door in hell, and always into smaller and smaller chambers. This is the real case against crime, that a man does not become wilder and wilder, but only meaner and meaner.

Chesterton, The Sign of the Broken Sword

The sands are fickle

They said the sands are fickle. Dunes may drift for decades in one direction, or not drift at all, then suddenly turn and consume you. Consumption by the sand is like other forms of terminal illness: it starts so gently that at first you don’t worry. One day the grains begin to accumulate against your walls. You’ve seen the grains before, and naturally assume that a change in the wind will carry them away. But this time the wind does not change, and the illness persists. Over weeks or longer, the sand grows. You fight back with a shovel, and manage to keep your walls clear. Fighting back feels good and gives you something to do. But the grains never let up, and one morning while shoveling you realize that the dunes have moved closer. You enlist your sons and brothers. But eventually the land around your house swells with sand, and you begin standing on sand to shovel sand. Finally no amount of digging will clear your walls. The dunes tower above you, and send sand sheets cascading down their advancing slip faces. You have to gather your belongings and flee.

But your house is your heritage, and you would like somehow to preserve it. As the dunes bear down on it they will collapse the walls. The defense is again the Saharan acceptance of destiny: having lost the fight against the sand, you must now invite it in. Sleeping on the sand, covering your floors with it for all these years, helped prepare you mentally. But shoveling in the sand is not enough. Your last act is to break out the windows, take off the doors, and knock holes in the roof. You allow the wind to work for you. If it succeeds, and fills your house, the walls will stand. Then, in a hundred years, when the wind requires it, the dunes will drift on and uncover the village. Your descendants will bless God and his Prophet. They will not care that you were thin and poor and had no work. They will remember you as a man at peace with his world. The desert takes away, but it always delivers.

William Langewiesche

To battle hopelessly, forever

To write or even speak English is not a science but an art. There are no reliable words. Whoever writes English is involved in a struggle that never lets up even for a sentence. He is struggling against vagueness, against obscurity, against the lure of the decorative adjective, against the encroachment of Latin and Greek, and, above all, against the worn-out phrases and dead metaphors with which the language is cluttered up.

Orwell

Making a splash

You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away. A rat would probably be killed, though it can fall safely from the eleventh story of a building; a man is killed, a horse splashes. For the resistance presented to movement by the air is proportional to the surface of the moving object. Divide an animal’s length, breadth, and height each by ten; its weight is reduced to a thousandth, but its surface only to a hundredth. So the resistance to falling in the case of the small animal is relatively ten times greater than the driving force.

J.B.S. Haldane

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, XVII

May, 2020

Watched Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), a very shaggy road movie slash heist movie starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. It begins as a movie about two actors with no chemistry stealing a series of 1970s cars while escaping a killer. At around minute 45, it becomes about robbing the Montana federal reserve. George Kennedy sports a pencil mustache and is a Nixonian Anton Chigurh. Beautiful scenery of Idaho and Western Montana, and the Snake river. The directing debut of Michael Cimino. If there are any themes to this movie, I guess one is that you should try to return to your past rather than becoming something new, and the other is that Clint Eastwood is a tough guy. Possibly the earliest filmed usage of the phrase “fuck a duck”? I give it 3 pistachio ice cream cones out of a possible 5 pistachio ice cream cones.

Extraction (2020)

Watched Extraction (2020), a tactical movement thriller. Chris Hemsworth is your basic tough mercenary guy, and he has to rescue a kidnapped kid in the middle of a city where literally everyone is a baddie. The centerpiece fight scene is cool, there was no need to make it a “one-take” sequence with obvious cuts. Bushy beards just signify special forces now, even when they’re retired and in India. I guess it’s okay for the good guy to kill all those cops? I would have liked a sequel starring Saju and Ovi on the run. Sam Hargrave, who like Chad Stahelski of John Wick (2014), is a stunt man turned director, was careful to stage fight sequences so as to avoid random goons in the background doing idle animations. give it 3.5 survival modes out of a possible 5 survival modes.

Crimson Tide (1995)

Watched Crimson Tide (1995), a cold war submarine movie about Denzel Washington challenging Gene Hackman to a mutiny-off in order to prevent or cause a nuclear holo-caust with Russia. First of all, there’s no way Viggo Mortensen should end that movie with a smile on his face, he’s a goddamned double coward. I like that the lesson of the movie was that the president should have sole authority to launch nuclear missiles, because that could never backfire. All submarine movies are essentially the same, but this one had the best score. I would have hidden the launch key inside the dog, but maybe that’s why I’m not a nuclear submarine captain yet. The comic book stuff was weird: turns out Quentin Tarantino punched up the script. I give it 4 conning towers out of a possible 5 conning towers.

Inauthentic culture

There is no such construct as an inauthentic culture.

William Langewiesche

Terminological disputes

Architects often get mad when non-architects conflate the terms “modernism,” “postmodernism,” “Brutalism,” etc. They love telling people that, say, “Frank Gehry is actually REACTING to postmodernism.” These terminological disputes can obscure the fact that everything under discussion is actually just a minor variation on the same garbage.

Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture

The psychic toll of placenames

This Celtic Christian culture of retreat originated in the Ireland of the fifth and sixth centuries. Begun by St Patrick in the 430s, and inspired by the desert saints of the preceding centuries, the practice of retreat spread to what are now western Scotland and coastal Wales: a centrifugal motion, carrying men to the brinks of Europe and beyond… We can surmise that the monks moved outwards because they wished to leave behind inhabited land: land in which every feature was named. Almost all Celtic placenames are commemorative: the bardic schools, as late as the seventeenth century, taught the history of places through their names, so that the landscape became a theatre of memory, continually reminding its inhabitants of attachment and belonging.

Robert MacFarlane

Postdiluvian paralysis

It did very well before the Flood, when a man would consult his friends upon an intended publication for a hundred and fifty years, and live to see his success afterwards; but at present, a man waits, and doubts, and consults his brother, and his particular friends, till one day he finds he is sixty years old and that he has lost so much time in consulting cousins and friends that he has no more time to follow their advice.

Sydney Smith

Purges

The Communist movement in Western Europe began, as a movement for the violent overthrow of capitalism, and degenerated within a few years into an instrument of Russian foreign policy… Every time Stalin swaps partners, ‘Marxism’ has to be hammered into a new shape. This entails sudden and violent changes of ‘line’, purges, denunciations, systematic destruction of party literature, etc., etc. Every Communist is in fact liable at any moment to have to alter his most fundamental convictions, or leave the party.

George Orwell

Coronation

Ray: How do you even get to be king anyway?

Roast Beef: Just punch hell of suckers in the mouth and tell chicks straight up that you like them

Ray: What’s what the craziest dudes used to get sent to separate high school for!

Roast Beef: Schools are exactly designed to keep dudes from becoming kings

Ray: Now I’m actually wonderin’ if I even LIKE kings, man. I’ll see you later, I got to take stock.

Chris Onstad

I recently reread the entire Achewood archive.

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, XIII

December, 2019

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

Watched The Dead Don’t Die (2019), Jim Jarmusch’s unsuccessful imitation of a zombie movie and very successful commercial for Sturgill Simpson. The cast is too long to mention, but it’s got some winners in it: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Danny Glover. Tom Waits has a cozy little side hustle playing old men who live outside. This is a zombie movie where the metaphor for commercialism isn’t a metaphor, it’s a monologue. The dead walk around looking for the products they craved in life, and only eating people when convenient for the plot. If that wasn’t clear enough, instead of ‘braaains’ they say things like ‘coffeeeee’, ‘wiiiifiiii’, or ‘fashioon’. Must the best criticism be subtle? It gets meta when Murray and Driver literally comment on the script. I don’t think I’ve ever really liked a Jim Jarmusch movie. I give it 3 Smart Cars out of a possible 5 Smart Cars.

Hopscotch (1980)

Watched Hopscotch (1980), a dry comedic spy thriller starring Walther Matthau as an ex-CIA agent on the run from the agency while writing his tell-all memoirs. Compare it to Fletch (1985) in tone, though I think I like this one even better. The weakest part of the movie is when it tries to be too madcap. Hard to overstate how delightful Matthau is in this role, or in any role, really. A few years prior to this, Matthau got to play tough guy heroes: The Laughing Policeman (1973), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), and Charley Varrick (1973), but by 1980 enough had changed that the dark original novel, by the writer of Death Wish, was changed into a consequence-free romp. There were whole scenes added where the only purpose was to show off Matthau’s funny face. A young Sam Waterstone plays Matthau’s admiring protege, grudgingly tasked with bringing him in by weasely boss Ned Beatty. Interesting score by Mozart and Rossini. Notice that everybody’s driving left-hand drive cars in Britain. I give it 4 hectares out of a possible 5 hectares.

The Irishman (2019)

Watched The Irishman (2019), Martin Scorsese’s extended meditation on whether anything we do matters in the end. It turns out it doesn’t, but while making his point Scorsese demonstrates what it takes to get a great performance out of Al Pacino and Robert Deniro in the 21st century: you have to be Martin Scorsese. Young Deniro looks like he’s in The Polar Express (2004). Jimmy Hoffa sure loved ice cream. I guess that was supposed to be Don Rickles. I was waiting to hear "Joey" by Bob Dylan, but never did. Another plot thread I wish they’d followed was how Deniro’s character claimed to paint houses, but we never actually saw him lift a paint brush! I give it 4.25 watermelons out of a possible 5 watermelons.

The educated mind

He is an atheist, but knows how to interpret in orthodox style the most difficult passages of the Koran; for every educated man is a theologian and faith is not a requisite.

Borges

“He” is Omar Khayyam.

Rule number one

Every big organization is set up for the benefit of those who control it; the boss gets what he wants.

Robert Jackall, Moral Mazes

Obliteration

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

Orwell

According to their need

To be a communist [in the mid 20th century] had next to nothing to do with a desire to establish a government resembling the one found in the USSR … In working-class environments, leftist politics meant first and foremost a very pragmatic rejection of the experience of one’s own daily life. It was a form of protest, and not a political project inspired by a global perspective.

Didier Eribon

I am convinced that voting for the National Front must be interpreted, at least in part, as the final recourse of people of the working classes attempting to defend their collective identity, or to defend, in any case, a dignity that was being trampled on, even now by those who had once been their representatives and defenders.

Didier Eribon

Thoughts on Paganism

Many useful excerpts to be culled from this essay about historical paganism and witchcraft, as compared to the modern misapprehension of them.

At the centre of the most vaunted ancient paganism, Celtic paganism, lies the terrible secret of the bog body, the uncannily preserved bodies of those deposited in bogs by previous societies for reasons that are still debated. Discoveries in Ireland illustrate that bog people could often be high-status individuals who had done little manual labour. Old Croghan Man, discovered in 2003, has a leather and tinned bronze armlet, and was very tall, almost 6’3”, and young and healthy. Old Croghan Man’s death was garishly violent—hazel rods were threaded through holes in his upper arms; he was stabbed in the chest, struck in the neck, decapitated, and cut in half. The violence, says Eamon Kelly of the National Museum of Ireland, is not done for torture or to inflict pain. It is a triple killing because the goddess to whom the sacrifice is made has three natures. She is goddess of sovereignty, fertility, and death.

And

Alexandra Walsham’s work on the reuse of wells and trees illustrates the way that far from destroying paganism, the church sought to convert pagan objects and rituals to Christianity. Consequently, it is inaccurate to see supernatural beliefs in 1500 as a static combination of Christian ideas with a few anterior pagan notions. Paganism survives through rather than in opposition to medieval Catholicism. It’s not that the Middle Ages display groups of dissident pagans hiding out alongside a dominant Christian world. All the “pagan” texts we have were transcribed by Christians. The green man carvings, the sheela-na-gigs, the romances populated with pagan figures—all are of Christian making.

And

The 21st century has also forgotten about the dead. Rites of mourning now are brief to the point of perfunctory even if grief continues unsupported. If there is a general truth it is that experiences of nature are mapped onto assumptions about the dead. As more and more of us live in vast conurbations, we have forgotten and are able to forget our own ultimate ends. It’s this sense of taboo and apprehension that modern paganism wants to omit. Instead of reuniting us with the dead and helping us to manage our fear of death, modern paganism proves to be another form of denial; this in itself makes its claims to historical revival hollow. Timothy Taylor notes that at some point in history, human beings realise that they will all die. To small bands of roaming hunters this was not self-evident; it was possible to view death as something unlucky that happened to other people. Once it was realised that everybody died, further issues arose, including the question “how can I stop the soul of the deceased returning to the body?”

Spurred onward

Any system which allows men to choose their own future will end by choosing safety and mediocrity, and in such a reality the stars are out of reach.

Asimov

Metonymy

The ronds-de-cuir. French bureaucrats, laboring all day on wooden chairs, were prone to a shine on the seat of the pants… To Lezhev, the ronds-de-cuir seemed, at first, a doleful but inevitable feature of French life but, in time, he came to understand them in a different way. Fussy, niggling, insatiable, they had some kinship with the infamous winds of Catalonia, which will not blow out a candle but will put a man in his grave.

Alan Furst, The Polish Officer

Vox scriptor

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

Thomas Jefferson

The best thing for being sad

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn—pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theo-criticism and geography and history and economics—why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”

“Apart from all these things,” said the Wart, “what do you suggest for me just now?

T.H. White

State of emergency

“That, too, is why this epidemic has taught me nothing new, except that I must fight it at your side. I know positively… that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a care less moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest — health, integrity, purity (if you like) — is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention. And it needs tremendous willpower, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses. Yes, Rieux, it’s a wearying business, being plague-stricken. But it’s still more wearying to refuse to be it. That’s why everybody in the world today looks so tired; everyone is more or less sick of plague. But that is also why some of us, those who want to get the plague out of their systems, feel such desperate weariness, a weariness from which nothing remains to set us free except death.

“Pending that release, I know I have no place in the world of today; once I’d definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. I leave it to others to make history. I know, too, that I’m not qualified to pass judgment on those others. There’s something lacking in my mental make-up, and its lack prevents me from being a rational murderer. So it’s a deficiency, not a superiority. But as things are. I’m willing to be as I am; I’ve learned modesty. All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences. That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can’t judge if it’s simple, but I know it’s true. You see. I’d heard such quantities of arguments, which very nearly turned my head, and turned other people’s heads enough to make them approve of murder; and I’d come to realize that all our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clean-cut language. So I resolved always to speak — and to act — quite clearly, as this was the only way of setting myself on the right track. That’s why I say there are pestilences and there are victims; no more than that…”

Albert Camus

The very problem

One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.

Thomas Schelling

Chesterton’s Fence

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

Chesterton

Fooled again!

What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a new master. You will get one.

Jacques Lacan

Continuum

The relation of an author to his work is only one out of many, and once you accept the idea that one thing to which a man stands related shares in his guilt, you will presently extend it to others; begin by banning his poems not because you object to them but because you object to him, and you will end, as the Nazis did, by slaughtering his wife and children.

Auden

Denial

In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we told ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.

Camus

An insult

(From Dark Star by Alan Furst):

He shook his head sorrowfully. “And in the end, when it’s our turn, and somebody else is doing what has to be done, somebody else who doesn’t ask to see the sense of it, the discipline of the executioner, then all we can say is za cbtoì—why? What for? ” Kuscinas laughed. “A sorry little question,” he said. “For myself, I don’t mean to ask it.”

That night, Szara couldn’t sleep. He lay in his bunk and smoked, the man across from him mumbling restlessly in his dreams. Szara knew the history of that question, Za cbtoì. Rumor attributed its initial use to the Old Bolshevik Yacov Lifschutz, a deputy people’s commissar. His final word. Szara remembered him as a little man with wild eyebrows, the obligatory goatee, and a twinkling glance. Shuffling down the tile corridor in the basement of the Lubyanka—you got it on the way, nobody ever reached the end of that corridor—he stopped for a moment and turned to his executioner, an officer he happened to have known in childhood, and said, “Za chto?”

Along with the purge, the phrase spread everywhere; it was scrawled on the walls of cells, carved in the wooden benches of the Stolypin wagons that hauled prisoners away, scratched into planks in transit camps. Almost always the first words spoken to the police who came in the night, then again the first words of a man or a woman entering a crowded cell. “But why? Why?”

We are all alike, Szara thought. We don’t offer excuses or alibis, we don’t fight with the police, we don’t look for compassion, we don’t even plead. We are the people who called ourselves “dead men on furlough;” we always expected to die—in the revolution, the civil war. All we ask, rational men that we are, is to see the sense of the thing, its meaning. Then we’ll go. Just an explanation. Too much to ask?

Yes.

The savagery of the purge, Szara knew, gave them every reason to believe there was, must be, a reason. When a certain NKVD officer was taken away, his wife wept. So she was accused of resisting arrest. Such events, common, daily, implied a scheme, an underlying plan. They wanted only to be let in on it—certainly their own deaths bought them the right to an answer—and then they’d simply let the rest of it happen. What was one more trickle of blood on a stone floor to those who’d seen it flow in streams across the dusty streets of a nation? The only insult was ignorance, a thing they’d never tolerated, a thing they couldn’t bear now.

In time, the cult of Za chto began to evolve a theory. Particularly with the events of June 1937, when the only remaining alternative to the rule of the dictator was ripped to shreds. That June came the turn of the Red Army and, when the smoke cleared, it was seen to be headless, though still walking around. Marshal Tukachevsky, acknowledged as Russia’s greatest soldier, was joined in his disappearance by two of four remaining marshals, fourteen of sixteen military commanders, eight of eight admirals, sixty of sixty-seven corps commanders, on and on and on. All eleven vice-commissars of defense, seventy-five of the eighty members of the Supreme Military Soviet. All of this, they reasoned; the shootings, the icebound mining camps, an army virtually destroyed by its own country— could have only one intention: Stalin simply sought to remove any potential opposition to his own rule. That was the way of tyrants: first eliminate enemies, then friends. This was an exercise in consolidation. On a rather grand scale, ultimately counted in millions— but what was Russia if not a grand scale?

What was Russia, if not a place where one could say, down through the centuries, times and men are evil, and so we bleed. This, for some, concluded the matter. The Old Bolsheviks, the Chekists, the officer corps of the Red Army—these people were the revolution but now had to be sacrificed so that the Great Leader could stand unthreatened and supreme. Russia’s back was broken, her spirit drained, but at least for most the question had been answered and they could get on with the trivial business of execution with acceptance and understanding. A final gesture on behalf of the party.

But they were wrong, it wasn’t quite that simple.

There were some who understood that, not many, only a few, and soon enough they died and, in time, so did their executioners, and, later, theirs.

Detection by happenstance

In such cases, when he could not follow the train of the reasonable, he coldly and carefully followed the train of the unreasonable. Instead of going to the right places – banks, police stations, rendezvous – he systematically went to the wrong places; knocked at every empty house, turned down every cul de sac, went up every lane blocked with rubbish, went round every crescent that led him uselessly out of the way. He defended this crazy course quite logically. He said that if one had a clue this was the worst way; but if one had no clue at all it was the best, because there was just the chance that any oddity that caught the eye of the pursuer might be the same that had caught the eye of the pursued. Somewhere a man must begin, and it had better be just where another man might stop.

Chesterton, The Blue Cross

Projects

People sometimes mistake their own shortcomings for those of society and want to fix the cities because they don’t know how to fix themselves.

Asimov

The trial

In most cases, the best strategy for a job interview is to be fairly honest, because the worst thing that can happen is that you won’t get the job and will spend the rest of your life foraging for food in the wilderness and seeking shelter underneath a tree or the awning of a bowling alley that has gone out of business.

Lemony Snicket

Moral fashions

Although moral fashions tend to arise from different sources than fashions in clothing, the mechanism of their adoption seems much the same. The early adopters will be driven by ambition: self-consciously cool people who want to distinguish themselves from the common herd. As the fashion becomes established they’ll be joined by a second, much larger group, driven by fear. This second group adopt the fashion not because they want to stand out but because they are afraid of standing out.

Paul Graham, What You Can’t Say

The bright side

There are people who ponder about their friends’ shortcomings: there’s nothing to be gained by that. I have always been on the lookout for the merits of my opponents, and this has been rewarding.

Goethe

Admirari mundi

Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization.

Jo Walton

Making a clean break

Nothing built today must be mistakable for anything built 100 or more years ago. The rupture between our era and those of the past is absolute, and this unbridgeable gap must be made visible and manifest through the things we build. And since things were lovely in the past, they must, of necessity, be ugly now.

Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture

Creativity

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Ira Glass

Networks

Is it a fact — or have I dreamt it — that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?

Nathaniel Hawthorne

It is a principle aspect of the electric age that it establishes a global network that has much of the character of our central nervous system. Our central nervous system is not merely an electric network, but it constitutes a single unified field of experience.

Marshall McLuhan

Zeitgeist

From now on, it can be said that plague was the concern of all of us. Hitherto, surprised as he may have been by the strange things happening around him, each individual citizen had gone about his business as usual, so far as this was possible. And no doubt he would have continued doing so. But once the town gates were shut, every one of us realized that all, the narrator included, were, so to speak, in the same boat, and each would have to adapt himself to the new conditions of life. Thus, for example, a feeling normally as individual as the ache of separation from those one loves suddenly became a feeling in which all shared alike and — together with fear — the greatest affliction of the long period of exile that lay ahead.

Camus

The Fall of Rome

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast

Auden

Last two stanzas.

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, XI

September, 2019

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Rewatched Miller’s Crossing (1990), a Coen Brothers movie about Gabriel Byrne running a scheme between the Irish and Italian mobs during Prohibition. The scheme is impossible to follow, but in the end I think he wins? The gold medal goes to Turturro for his performance as a sneaky little weasel, edging out Jon Polito by inches. The fact that they filmed the hats as though they were symbolic is enough: what the hat symbolizes, if anything, isn’t important. The cat in Inside Llewyn Davis was meaningless too. I forgot how good that Danny Boy action sequence is. People make note of the "Barton Arms" hotel as a nod to Barton Fink, but I didn’t see anybody point out that there’s a Mike Fink comic prominently featured as well. I give it 3.5 high hats out of a possible 5 high hats.

Manhunter (1986)

Watched Manhunter (1986), Michael Mann’s adaptation of Red Dragon, with Brian Cox instead of Anthony Hopkins and William Peterson instead of whoever else was in that movie. I watched the director’s cut, which added nothing of value: you knew which scenes were edited back in because they hadn’t really been processed, and looked like city council meetings from the public access channel. It feels like a Michael Mann movie in its themes and preoccupation with expressionist urban landscapes, but it did not have enough tactical movement in my opinion. The Frankenstein (1818) interlude where the monster goes on a date with a blind lady was awkward and came out of nowhere to dominate the last act. The climax felt like they made it in a hurry, and sure enough it seems they ran out of money right before filming it. I guess the poster IS the wall? I wish I knew a veterinarian who would let me pet a tiger after hours. I give it 3.75 turtle shelters out of a possible 5 turtle shelters.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

Rewatched The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), John McTiernan’s fantasy art heist movie set in a pre-9/11 mindset. In this movie, Rene Russo investigates and falls in love with zillionaire thief Pierce Brosnan. McTiernan’s instinct to lighten the mood in comparison to the original film was dead on. Even though crimes are being committed in this movie, they’re victimless, and everybody involved is just having a great time being rich, or looking at rich people. Everybody, that is, except feckless NYPD detective Dennis Leary, who sucks anyway, and even he comes around by the end. Was it the over-saturation of upbeat jazz music that changed his mind? Or was it just that in 1999 nothing seemed consequential? Frankie Faison is in this movie. What is Thomas Crown’s yearly briefcase budget? In 2019 they would at least nod to having him do something with his money besides leave performance yachts, gliders, and Shelby mustangs lying around: something charitable, redemptive, or apologetic. Next time you watch this movie, pay attention to all the different pencil holders! I give it 4 green apples out of a possible 5 green apples.

The Wrong Guy (1997)

Watched The Wrong Guy (1997), in which a cowardly buffoon (Dave Foley) believes he is a fugitive from the law after discovering his boss has been murdered. A direct and self-acknowledging parody of North by Northwest (1959), it also feels an awful lot like The Jerk (1979) in comic tone. Meg/Jennifer Tilly plays a narcoleptic love interest, the daughter of a poor banker who is (in a storyline that almost pays off) about to be foreclosed on by an evil, rich farmer. There were also a couple probable references to The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), such as the boardroom scene, and the sleeve-ripping scene. The bits are strung together, and many are very funny. Through triangulation you get a clearer sense what Foley’s voice contributed to The Kids in the Hall. Kevin McDonald has a cameo, as does Mark McKinney. The opening sequence is excellent. I give it 3.75 tainted hams out of a possible 5 tainted hams.

Out of Sight (1998)

Rewatched Out of Sight (1998), Steven Soderbergh’s first movie with studio money. George Clooney is a bank robber, and Jennifer Lopez is a U.S. Marshal out to catch him but, oops, they fall in love. From an Elmore Leonard novel, and though I didn’t know it the first time around, now it’s unmistakable. This is the high point of Lopez and Ving Rhames’ acting careers, for me; probably Clooney’s, too. So many great performances in this movie: Don Cheadle, Dennis Farina, Luis Guzman, Steve Zahn, Albert Brooks. Cameos by Michael Keaton (as his character from Jackie Brown (1997)) and Samuel L. Jackson. I thought the editing was classic Soderbergh, but it turns out Anne V. Coates edited it, so it’s possible some of the things I think of as classic Soderbergh are actually classic Coates. I give it 4 big steaks out of a possible 5 big steaks.

Porco Rosso (1992)

Watched Porco Rosso (1992), an animated love letter to 1) planes and 2) Italy. Porco Rosso plays himself, but this time as an lonely former WWI pilot, haunted by his past, who hunts seaplane bandits in the Adriatic. He crosses paths with an American flying ace against whom he must square off, with the help of a plucky girl. The ratio of machine guns fired to anybody getting hurt is 5000 to 0. There aren’t any real threats in the movie, just a lot of great background paintings. I think it’s great that Porco Rosso doesn’t turn back into a human at the end of the movie, and it’s never explained how he became a pig man, and almost nobody asks about it. It struck me that this movie borrowed a lot from Talespin (1990), but then I discovered it was probably based on Miyazaki’s own manga from 1989. Still, two animators coming up with strikingly similar ideas at about the same time: pretty odd! I give it 4 trenchcoats out of a possible 5 trenchcoats.

The Social Network (2010)

Watched The Social Network (2010), an apocalypse movie chronicling the invention of Tom from MySpace. Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay, which was amazing but evidently didn’t care about history at all. David Fincher is the Mark Zuckerberg of directors. This movie threaded the needle to tell a story in which nobody is likable, or worth rooting for. Nobody real that is: Rooney Mara’s character, and Rashida Jones’ characters seem nice, but they are just composites, as unreal as the second Armie Hammer. Jesse Eisenberg just made a weird face the entire movie. N*Sync did a good job as Napster. I give it 3.5 Red Vines out of a possible 5 Red Vines.

Kaili Blues (2015)

Watched Kaili Blues (2015), a film by Bi Gan, about a doctor in China traveling to another city to retrieve his nephew. To understand the experience of watching the film, try putting a question mark after every word in that description, and add in the concept that the present, past, and future are flattened together and that the whole thing could be a dream. And yet it’s not an incoherent puzzle box, it makes sense and every elusive image gets paid off with something later (or earlier) on. Often compared to Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), I liked and respected this film a lot more. It’s also post-apocalyptic, in a way, with all we see of the city of Kaili being either demolished or under construction. The most famous thing about it is the documentary-style 41-minute tracking shot, which I am a sucker for. The first half of the movie is great as well, and shows you how to unload an excavator from a trailer. Why did she take the ferry across the river and then walk right back across the bridge? I give it 4.25 disco balls out of a possible 5 disco balls.

Mr. Arkadin

Watched Mr. Arkadin (1955), Orson Welles’ mashup of Citizen Kane and The Third Man. Robert Arden plays a small-time crook hired by mysterious billionaire Gregory Arkadin to investigate Arkadin’s own dark past. Welles called this movie a disaster, because he lost creative control during editing and hated the theatrical release, but as far as I can tell that is true of most Orson Welles movies. In all there were 3 different edits of this movie; I watched the Criterion Collection’s "Complete" edition. The high-definition transfer reveals the glue on his magnificent hairpiece and beard. On the plus side: moody photography, jet-set noir, and Welles’ theatrical baritone voice made the film worth watching. On the minus side, I didn’t care about the plot at all. There’s a scene where a refrigerator is wearing a sombrero. I give it 3 goose livers out of a possible 5 goose livers.

Between Two Ferns: The Movie (2019)

Watched Between Two Ferns: The Movie (2019), a framing device for a series of short episodes of the web series. There are something like 12 Between Two Ferns interviews, and then everything else is pretty thin. I don’t think they go more than about 7 minutes between showing interviews with celebrities. They got a really good lineup. He asks Keanu Reeves "on a scale of 1 to 100, how many words do you know?" and that’s maybe the funniest slam ever. You can see how hard they work to cut around everyone laughing. Some of the interstitial plot, about Zach Gallifianakis traveling the country to earn a network talk show, is funny, but not as funny as the other stuff. A lot of LA comedians get shoehorned into cameo roles; too many to name. I give it 2.5 razor scooters out of a possible 5 razor scooters.

What is a train?

… Something frightful, like a kitchen dragging a village behind it.

Gabriel García Márquez

First things first

Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.

Auden

Empty quadrangles

What a place to be in is an old library! It seems as though all the souls of all the writers, that have bequeathed their labours to these Bodleians, were reposing here, as in some dormitory, or middle state. I do not want to handle, to profane the leaves, their winding-sheets. I could as soon dislodge a shade. I seem to inhale learning, walking amid their foliage; and the odour of their old moth-scented coverings is fragrant as the first bloom of those sciential apples which grew amid the happy orchard.

Charles Lamb, from Oxford in the Vacation

An essay about wandering around a campus when all the students have gone home. I remember this feeling.

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, IV

Vol. IV, December 2018

Notorious (1946)

Watched Notorious (1946), wherein Ingrid Bergman is the disgraced daughter of a convicted nazi agent, pressed into service to spy on her father’s co-conspirators, and treated rather shabbily by everyone, including her handler, Cary Grant. The influence of the Hayes codes is felt throughout the movie, as everything was smolderingly romantic but completely asexual. This is the only performance by Claude Rains I’ve ever seen that was good. When they were making the movie in 1945, nobody outside the military knew how to make an atomic bomb, but Hitchcock’s pseudoscientific version was not actually any dumber than the ones in movies today. If you like insert shots of peoples legs kicking things, this is the movie for you. Very tense. Good payoff for how the bad guy gets his just deserts, which allows the movie to end without really any denouement. I give it 4 foreshortened cups of coffee out of a possible 5 foreshortened cups of coffee.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Watched The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), a Coen brothers western anthology. Of the six stories, the titular one is the least interesting and most disturbing, with Tim Blake Nelson playing a murderous cowboy version of Bugs Bunny. It doesn’t actually fit very well with the rest of them, come to think of it. The best is “The Gal Who Got Rattled”. A very Coen brothers thing is to sprinkle in thematic elements we can feel smart for noticing, but which do not necessarily add up to a complete message. Congratulations on losing the weight, Dudley! I give it 4 dog holes out of a possible 5 dog holes.

Aquaman (2018)

I watched Aquaman (2018), a DCEU movie in which Prince Namor the Submariner (Jason Momoa) fights to save Atlanta. Prince Namor (Aquaman) is a parseltongue — but with fish — and he’s very strong. It’s funny that though they were cast side by side in the same movie, I was happy for Dolph Lundgren and sad for Willem Defoe. There are no fewer than three scenes in this movie in which someone finishes saying their exposition, then the wall behind them explodes so that a fight scene can start. If a technologically advanced civilization has mastered fusion, why do they go to war by having thousands of people line up in ranks and run to the other side of a field while screaming? Honestly, I think a trident would beat a sword anyway. I give it 2 octopus drumkits out of a possible 5 octopus drumkits.

Krull (1983)

Watched Krull (1983), a fantasy movie that feels influenced by Flash Gordon (1980) and Barbarella (1968). In it, hammer-wielding polygamist Liam Neeson uses a very particular set of skills to help Colwyn (Ken Marshall) rescue a female protagonist whom I believe he knew for like 6 minutes before she was kidnapped. Line readings were stilted and delivered like the actors couldn’t see each other. Best sequence is The Widow of the Web: had both a translucent stop motion spider and actual stakes. They definitely shot that tiger up with real tranquilizers! I give it 2.5 flamethrower hands out of a possible 5 flamethrower hands.

Munich (2005)

Watched Munich (2005). Very good movie, not the best. Mossad agents retaliate to the Munich attacks by assassinating PLO leaders in a series of increasingly messy and morally compromised home invasions. Hard to miss the symbolism about homes in this movie, there sure is a lot of it. Eric Bana did fine, but for some reason I can’t care about whatever emotions he’s feeling. Oh look, Ciarán Hinds’ wang. At first, it looked like the movie was going to have an interesting episodic structure, but like the mission itself, it sort of drifted at the end. I give it 4 hunks of unpasteurized cheese out of a possible 5 hunks of unpasteurized cheese.

The Plague

The doctor was still looking out of the window. Beyond it lay the tranquil radiance of a cool spring sky; inside the room a word was echoing still, the word “plague.” A word that conjured up in the doctor’s mind not only what science chose to put into it, but a whole series of fantastic possibilities utterly out of keeping with that gray and yellow town under his eyes, from which were rising the sounds of mild activity characteristic of the hour; a drone rather than a bustling, the noises of a happy town, in short, if it’s possible to be at once so dull and happy. A tranquility so casual and thoughtless seemed almost effortlessly to give the lie to those old pictures of the plague: Athens, a charnel-house reeking to heaven and deserted even by the birds; Chinese towns cluttered up with victims silent in their agony; the convicts at Marseille piling rotting corpses into pits; the building of the Great Wall in Provence to fend off the furious plague- wind; the damp, putrefying pallets stuck to the mud floor at the Constantinople lazar-house, where the patients were hauled up from their beds with hooks; the carnival of masked doctors at the Black Death; men and women copulating in the cemeteries of Milan; cartloads of dead bodies rumbling through London’s ghoul-haunted darkness — nights and days filled always, everywhere, with the eternal cry of human pain. No, all those horrors were not near enough as yet even to ruffle the equanimity of that spring afternoon. The clang of an unseen streetcar came through the window, briskly refuting cruelty and pain. Only the sea, murmurous behind the dingy checkerboard of houses, told of the unrest, the precariousness, of all things in this world. And, gazing in the direction of the bay, Dr. Rieux called to mind the plague-fires of which Lucretius tells, which the Athenians kindled on the seashore. The dead were brought there after nightfall, but there was not room enough, and the living fought one another with torches for a space where to lay those who had been dear to them; for they had rather engage in bloody conflicts than abandon their dead to the waves. A picture rose before him of the red glow of the pyres mir- rored on a wine-dark, slumbrous sea, battling torches whirling sparks across the darkness, and thick, fetid smoke rising toward the watchful sky. Yes, it was not beyond the bounds of possibility…

Camus

Enlightenment

Now there is no more magic or witchcraft. This is because the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses cannot be used any longer. It was these books that meticulously inscribed and recorded all witchcraft, magic and incantations. These two books are sealed in Wittenberg and they are exhibited as curiosities, but cannot be borrowed.

Kuhn and Schwartz

The Law of Triviality

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.
I said, “Don’t do it!”
He said, “Nobody loves me.”
I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
He said, “A Christian.”
I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”
He said, “Protestant.”
I said, “Me, too! What franchise?”
He said, “Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”
I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

Emo Philips

Wine-dark seas

We are prepared to see, and we see easily, things for which our language and culture hand us ready-made labels. When those labels are lacking, even though the phenomena may be all around us, we may quite easily fail to see them at all.

Douglas Hofstader

Conservatism

We are dying creatures in a dying world. Our place is among the dead, and happiness comes when we acknowledge this, and strive to recreate in imagination, and to some small extent in reality, the moral order that has been established over more than a lifetime for the sake of life.

Roger Scruton

Scruton, an old-school British conservative, so old-school that this quote comes from a book about fox hunting, makes this unabashed cri de coeur without irony or self-deprecation. I appreciate the spiritual clarity. I sometimes feel the same way, but not always.

A Sea of Troubles

There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man: love trouble, ambition, and financial catastrophe. And that’s already three things, and there are a lot more.

Peter Altenberg

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, XIV

January, 2020

Knives Out (2019)

Watched Knives Out (2019), Rian Johnson’s ensemble murder mystery set in a country home. Interestingly, everyone is not a suspect, since the sequence of events around the murder are revealed pretty early. Some good references to murder mystery movies, including the animatronic sailor from Sleuth (1972) . Too many of the jokes in this movie will not make sense in 20 years, and were not necessary. James Bond (Daniel Craig) plays Benoit Blanc, the gentleman sleuth, and manages to be great even with a preposterously bad Kentucky accent. Knives Out is a great title for a murder mystery, but it’s clear they came up with the title first and then wrote in scenes to justify it, including the (very predictable, even by me) final beat. Chris Evans did a good job playing against type. Lots of vomit jokes. Jamie Lee Curtis was great. People give Don Johnson a lot of credit for his fun performance, but he did it exactly the way you’d expect Don Johnson to do it. Michael Shannon had nothing to add except one brief yell. I think Daniel Craig likes to do bad southern accents, because he did one in Logan Lucky (2017) too. I give it 4 knives out of a possible 5 knives.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Watched Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Shane Black’s Los Angeles noir movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. as a man auditioning for the role of Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008). Val Kilmer is so good. There are a few films that are from the 2000s that feel like leftover scripts from the quirky crime movies of the ’90s: In Bruges (2008) and Lucky Number Slevin (2006) for example. This is another, and it feels weird. Some good jokes. On the whole I think I prefer The Nice Guys (2016), the other Shane Black movie that is this movie, but I do like this one as well. I give it 3.5 severed fingers out of a possible 5 severed fingers.

Is Paris Burning (1966)

Watched Is Paris Burning? (1966), a movie about the French resistance to Nazi occupation in Paris. This is an unexpectedly grand scale movie, with tons of stunts, and an ensemble cast I didn’t expect to see — not only every French actor I’ve ever heard of who wasn’t in Leon (1994), Green Card (1990), or Amelie (2001), but lots of Americans like Orson Welles, Kirk Douglas, and Anthony Perkins. Robert Stack as Eisenhower. Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal wrote the script, but I’m not sure how much of that script is what I saw filmed. Charles de Gaulle had complete oversight, and did things like declare that the red and black Nazi flag could never be shown flying over Paris, which is why the film is shot in black and white (they used green flags even while filming to get around this declaration). Being in black and white did allow them to mix in actual footage from the liberation without being too jarring for me. It’s surprising, though, that covering fire had not been developed before WWII. There are a lot of genuinely great moments in what amounts to a propaganda film, and in that respect it could be paired with The Longest Day (1962) even more than a darker, less literally flag-waving movie about the Resistance, like Army of Shadows (1969). I give it 3.75 trout mousses out of a possible 5 trout mousses.

1917 (2020)

Watched 1917 (2020), a Roger Deakins film about WWI. The plot is Saving Private Ryan (1998), only moreso, with two lance corporals traveling through no man’s land to save one of them’s brother, and 1599 other doughboys from an ambush. This clearly isn’t a one-take movie: there’s a straight up fade to black in the middle of it, and the 40 other hidden cuts are not always subtle. Mark Strong should play Benedict: not Cumberbatch, the guy from Amber. The best day in a cinematographer’s year is when he gets to light a scene with flares. I think I understand the symbolism of the cherry trees. Everything audio-visual about this movie rules. I give it 4.5 rats out of a possible 5 rats.

Parasite (2019)

Watched Parasite (2019), Bong Joon-Ho’s satire about work and dependence in a pre-post-scarcity economy. This story would make absolutely no sense to Captain Picard of the Federation: I wonder what the Ferengi would think. Similar to Edgar Wright movies in at least one way: the fact that everything in the movie pays off eventually means the director is an obsessive. Similar to 1917 (2019) in at least one way: both owe a debt to Alfred Hitchcock, as we all do I guess. A partial list of things which have symbolic value: stairs, smart phones, scholar’s stones, plans, plum extract, the underground, pure water vs. sewage, native Americans, buses, lightning, concrete, sunbeams, the Boy Scouts, and flickering lights. The movie recapitulates its own story, by pretending to be something it isn’t and revealing itself halfway through! Lee Jung-eun, as the former housekeeper, has the best performance, or at least my favorite performance. Why did they think the family was abetting the driver Kim if they didn’t know he wasn’t really the driver Kim? This isn’t my favorite movie of the year (1917 (2019)) or my favorite Bong Joon-Ho movie (Memories of Murder (2003)), but it’s close. Great carpet in this movie. I give it 4.5 peaches out of a possible 5 peaches.

Uncut Gems (2019)

Watched Uncut Gems (2019), an elaborate, nerve-wracking movie about sports betting. Adam Sandler plays a diamond seller who get sexual pleasure out of taking ultimately self-destructive risks. Like the second shot of the movie, he is a complete asshole. This movie was directed by the Safdie brothers, who I hear have their own dance. Kevin Garnett plays himself, and just as in real life, he is obsessed with a fire opal he believes has magic basketball powers. Most people only know fire opals as a spell component for casting Fireball, or as the result of rolling 91-99 on the random treasure table for gems, where it is worth, on average, 1000 gp. In this movie, the fire opal symbolizes both Africa, Judaism, and the rejuvenation of lost potency. The movie ends abruptly, but in a way that makes you say yeah, that’s what would happen. I give it 4.25 bedazzled Gizmos out of a possible 5 bedazzled Gizmos.

King of New York (1990)

Watched King of New York (1990), Abel Ferrara’s crime movie where Christopher Walken is the crime boss. The twist is that Walken’s character thinks he is Robin Hood (1938) but he’s actually Scarface (1983), depending on where you stand. Laurence Fishburne plays the Joker. He’s at an 11 most of the time, but gets some quiet moments where he can take it down to about 8. Wesley Snipes is in there too, and so is David Caruso. I guess the message of the movie is that the city swallows good intentions whole while slowly sliding into ruin. Lots of nudity and late 80s hip hop in this movie. Lots of ketchup blood. Some very good lines, and memorable scenes. In an alternate timeline, there are posters of this movie on college dorm rooms. I give it 3.25 barrels of MSG out of a possible 5 barrels of MSG.

Boldness, taxation

Space expenditures will soon rise some more, from 40 cents per person per week to more than 50 cents a week for every man, woman and child in the United States, for we have given this program a high national priority—even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us. But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240 thousand miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25 thousand miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun … and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out—then we must be bold.

JFK

The dawning of mankind

[At] some point in history, human beings realise that they will all die. To small bands of roaming hunters this was not self-evident; it was possible to view death as something unlucky that happened to other people.

Diane Purkiss

Optimism

Flowers, Ida thought scornfully; that wasn’t life. Life was sunlight on brass bedposts, Ruby port, the leap of the heart when the outsider you have backed passes the post and the colours go bobbing up… What was the sense of dying if it made you babble of flowers? … She took life with deadly seriousness: she was prepared to cause any amount of unhappiness to anyone in order to defend the only thing she believed in. To lose your lover—’broken hearts,’ she would say, ‘always mend,’ to be maimed or blinded—’lucky,’ she’d tell you, ‘to be alive at all.’ There was something dangerous and remorseless in her optimism, whether she was laughing in Henekey’s or weeping at a funeral or a marriage.

Graham Greene, Brighton Rock

Good sketch of one of the main characters. I admire writers like Greene and Dickens, who can evoke a character with depth and contradictions in a single paragraph.

Western Psychogeography

The element that most clearly defines the western is the symbolic landscape in which it takes place and the influence this landscape has on the character and actions of the hero. This is, I think, why this particular formula has come to be known by a geographical term… [This] symbolic landscape is a field of action that centers on the point of encounter between civilization and wilderness, settled society and lawless openness.

John G. Cawelti

Inconceivable, appalling

He said, ‘There was a man, a Frenchman, you wouldn’t know about him, my child, who had the same idea as you. He was a good man, a holy man, and he lived in sin all through his life, because he couldn’t bear the idea that any soul could suffer damnation.’ She listened with astonishment. He said, ‘This man decided that if any soul was going to be damned, he would be damned too. He never took the sacraments, he never married his wife in church. I don’t know, my child, but some people think he was—well, a saint. I think he died in what we are told is a mortal sin—I’m not sure: it was in the war: perhaps…’ He sighed and whistled, bending his old head. He said, ‘You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the… appalling… strangeness of the mercy of God.’

Graham Greene

Also, nested colon clauses.

Scholarly remove and high diction

The wretched of the earth get no help from witch doctors, and when academic language gets beyond shouting distance of ordinary speech, voodoo is all it is.

Clive James

Permission to skim

I do not bite my nails about the difficulties I meet with in my reading; after a charge or two, I give them over. Should I insist upon them, I should both lose myself and time; for I have an impatient understanding, that must be satisfied at first: what I do not discern at once is by persistence rendered more obscure.

Montaigne

Hubris

Any problem can be solved using the materials in the room

Edwin H. Land

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, X

August, 2019

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Watched Avengers: Endgame (2019), in which Earth’s Mightiest Heroes travel back in time to get the Infinity Gems and undo Thanos’ dastardly deed. This is an inspired idea for a plot, because it lets them revisit the previous MCU movies and do a victory lap before closing out this chapter of the franchise. Everything in this movie was very predictable, and despite being good a lot of the time, it was never great. My favorite part was when Ant Man’s taco gets blown away by the ground effects of a spaceship landing, and then everybody makes fun of him, but then Hulk gives him two tacos. I almost cried. I’m glad I didn’t, because those tears would have turned into tears of rage when Thanos was able to break Cap’s shield with his sword. That is not possible. That is horse shit. This movie sucked, and I give it 3.25 juice pops out of a possible 5 juice pops.

Under the Silver Lake (2019)

I watched Under The Silver Lake (2019), a movie by David Robert Mitchell, starring Andrew Garfield as a man whose life is falling apart, who coincidentally happens to get drawn into a conspiracy involving hidden codes planted in media, nude assassins in bird masks, and the fate of Los Angeles billionaires. A thoroughly polarizing movie for critics. I initially found it plodding and insular, but at a certain point (right around when the Hobo King showed up) I looked up and realized I was really enjoying it. This movie is like the following movies in a blender: The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, Mulholland Drive, The Big Lebowski, and Pi. I’m not sure how anyone watched it and didn’t realize it was an absurdist comedy, and that the main character was delusional. There’s a scene where he’s trailing some suspects, and they rent a paddleboat, so he rents a paddleboat to keep following them. I give it 4 life masks out of a possible 5 life masks.

Avengement (2019)

Watched Avengement (2019). It’s a revenge fantasy movie, sort of a cross between Bronson and The Revenant, about a boxer set up to go to prison by a London gangster, who then puts a hit out on him. The boxer becomes the Goku of prison fighting, gets a grille, then breaks out to wreak his avengement (which unfortunately is a real word). The movie is told in flashbacks during a hostage situation in a pub, and is surprisingly enjoyable for what it is. The bar fight you know is going to happen happens, and it’s brutal. What parent would name one of their two male children Cain? Everything in England is on CC TV except the prisons, apparently? Ross O’Hennessy was great as the bent copper (blimey)! The fact that Cain did not brutally kill that bartender is pure chauvinism. I give it 3.5 curb stomps out of a possible 5 curb stomps.

Public Enemies (2009)

Watched Public Enemies (2009). This is probably Michael Mann’s most forgettable movie, a retelling of John Dillinger’s last days that was only slightly different than the one any serviceable director would have made. Some moments stand out, but they’re exceptions. Without neon or sodium lighting, it doesn’t feel right, and none of these actors are ugly enough, or career criminals enough to be his cast. Johnny Depp still just does an impression of a character rather than inhabiting it, and Christian Bale can’t do a Southern accent, god bless him. Herc from The Wire wears a toupee. There are two types of Mann movies: “I live and die by my own rules,” and “Can’t you see the old days are going away?”, and this one actually does a bad job at being both. The man running through the orchard? That’s Channing Tatum. The most disappointing thing of all is that the bullet noises are fake. I give it 3 phone books out of a possible 5 phone books.

Bloodsport (1988)

Watched Bloodsport (1988) a movie directed by nobody, about Commander Guile competing in the Street Fighter tournament. For this movie they actually filmed inside the Kowloon Walled City. There’s a middle eastern gentleman whose voice is clearly dubbed by a chain smoking Romanian garbage man, but only in one scene. Best part is when the janitor steals the gold tooth JCVD knocked out of the guy’s mouth. Strangest scene is the comedy foot chase. It’s also funny when Forest Whitaker doesn’t know how to use chopsticks. Evidently a lot of cocaine was being done right before the camera rolled? Even dogs don’t want to eat eel! I almost cried when Chong Li stole Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds’ Harley Davidson bandana from his broken body. I give it 2.5 pectoral flexes out of a possible 5 pectoral flexes.

Pokemon: Detective Pikachu (2019)

Watched Pokemon: Detective Pikachu (2019), a movie in which Pikachu has to help an orphan save the city. Pikachu is pretty cute with that detective hat on, and he has some funny lines. There were a couple neat effects sequences. Other than that, the movie kinda sucked. I don’t know enough Pokemon to care about most of it, and it’s definitely for kids. Why would you choose a non-cute pokemon to be your “partner”? There’s one that looks like a gross tree, and Psyduck is a liability. The actor playing the main character was fine. Bulbasaur was fine. Mr. Mime was fine. The ending made zero sense: felt like they must have changed it from something else. I give it 2.5 electric mice out of a possible 5 electric mice.

The conspiracy

Yes, there is a conspiracy, indeed there are a great number of conspiracies, all tripping each other up … the main thing that I learned about conspiracy theories is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in the conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy, or the grey aliens, or the twelve-foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control, the truth is far more frightening; no-one is in control, the world is rudderless.

Alan Moore

Quotidian

It would be a desirable and enviable existence just to earn a decent wage at a worthwhile job and spend all one’s leisure hours improving one’s aesthetic appreciation. There is so much to appreciate, and it is all available for peanuts. One can plausibly aspire to seeing, hearing and reading everything that matters.

Clive James

Would it? Is it? Can one?

Our Trojan War

“I believed very much that the American Civil War is an experience central to our lives—all Americans but especially Southerners. The Civil War, for us, was very much similar to the Trojan War for Greeks; the Civil War is our Iliad. And I think it could be written any number of times by any number of writers, in part or as a whole, the way the Greeks did.”

Shelby Foote

The defining qualities of literary Modernism

[“Mrs Bathurst”] in effect, is the first modernist text in English. Deliberate obliqueness, formal fragmentation, intense literary self-consciousness, lack of closure-all the defining qualities of modernism were present and correct.

Harry Ricketts

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, XII

November, 2019

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Watched The Hunt for Red October (1990), a Tom Clancy thriller directed by John Mctiernan, which is why it feels like Die Hard (1988). Sean Connery is a Russian submarine captain betting the fate of his crew and risking WWIII in order to defect. Alec Baldwin plays sultry pain in the neck Jack Ryan. This may be Connery’s best role. Shares a surprising amount with Ice Station Zebra: a race to acquire doomsday military technology, a saboteur trying to destroy their own sub, and a climax forced by the unexpected arrival of the Russian navy. Overall, this movie is a treat for fans of conning towers. It doesn’t make sense why Ramius sends a note explaining what he’s doing beforehand, but without that note there is no plot. I felt a sense of sadness when Sam Neal started talking about is plans for the future, because that means he is going to die. I give it 3.75 recreational vehicles out of a possible 5 recreational vehicles.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Rewatched The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), an Anthony Minghella film in which Matt Damon kills Jude Law, then Philip Seymour Hoffman. In the original book, Tom Ripley is a con man from the start, and going to Europe after Dickie Greenleaf was always part of a grift. I prefer Minghella’s version, in which love, wealth, and identity are entwined for Ripley so you can’t be sure whether he kills Dickie because he doesn’t want to go back to being poor, or because his romantic affection wasn’t returned, or because he’s a parasite taking over his host. Gorgeous photography, great score, terrible 90s title sequence. I would say scrub it out, but you can’t because it’s superimposed over the first few shots. There was an adaptation of this book filmed in 1960, but there are also two sequels to this movie filmed in the early 2000s, one starring John Malkovich as the title character, and one starring Barry Pepper. Believe it or not, seeing this movie is reputedly what inspired Tommy Wiseau to make The Room (2003). I give it 3.5 busts of Hadrian out of a possible 5 busts of Hadrian.

Plein Soleil (1960)

Watched Plein Soleil (1960), an adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. As opposed to the book, and Minghella’s adaptation of it, there is no homosexual subplot, and Ripley gets caught in the end. He is basically a con man who gets in over his head, and almost lies his way out of it. This was Alain Delon’s first major role, and he’s good. The female lead chews with her mouth open. The guy who plays Philip Seymour Hoffman is pretty bad. This version adds a lot of French-style slapstick bits, which were out of place, and some montages I didn’t need. It’s nice to see authentic, beautiful color footage of Italy in the late 50s. The 1999 adaptation is clearly superior in just about every way, yet its not rated as highly — not sure why. I give it 3 rubber hands out of a possible 5 rubber hands.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019)

Watched Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019), Quentin Tarantino’s rambling, revisionist fable about 1969. Leonardo DiCaprio is an aging action star trying to stay relevant, and Brad Pitt is his stunt double: an aimless, superheroic coolguy who can’t stay out of trouble. His character is established when he loses his job by kicking Bruce Lee’s ass. This movie has an astonishing number of cameos. I think it’s my favorite Tarantino movie. It’s dense with great moments, dialog, and things to look at, which is what I want out of his movies, and it’s not as bewilderingly eccentric as the last few have been. I know a lot has been said about him rewriting history in Inglourious Basterds (2009), and he does it in this movie: has there been a satisfactory explanation for what he’s trying to accomplish? The same guy who played Manson in Mindhunter plays him in this movie. I give it 4.25 donuts out of a possible 5 donuts.

Hunting

The significance of a human experience can be measured by the quantity and quality of its art. By this criterion religion and erotic love are the deepest of our poor resources; but hunting, however distant on the surface, lies adjacent to them in the depths.

Roger Scruton

This is the exact argument he didn’t make adequately in his book On Hunting. I’m very sympathetic to hunting as a pastime, I’ve done it myself, and in this book by a philosopher I was looking for a more reflective treatment of the subject than he gave me.

He calls it a memoir, and even says that it will not be a defense of hunting. But the rest of the book is about how great hunting is. So, rather than working as an honest memoir, it just felt more like an inadequate defense.

Success

Grasp an idea and work it out to a successful conclusion. That’s about all there is in life for any of us.

E.H. Harriman

The lunar age

Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves.

Thomas Jefferson

Owning dogs

[Hunting hounds] live still in their savage state, relieved of that constant and inachievable demand to mimic the manners of a moral being, which troubles the life of the incarcerated pet. They sleep in a pack in dog-scented kennels, hunt in a pack with their powers supremely stretched; they eat raw flesh, and not too much of it; they drink the brackish water of mud-stopped ditches; and the prices of every slackness is the rough end of the tongue. Once trained to hunt they can never be subdued to a household regime, and can expect nothing when their hunting strength has gone besides a shot in the head, often administered by the very man whose love is all to them. But their time on earth is a happy one; everything they do is rooted in their nature, and even the crowning gift of human love comes in the guise of species-life: for the huntsman is leader of the pack, first among the band of canine warriors. His authority is not that mysterious, guilt-ridden thing that appears to the pet in the down-turned milky eyes of his crooning captor, but the glad imperative of the species, miraculously incarnate in human form.

Roger Scruton

Ne plus ultra

To die of age is a rare, singular, and extraordinary death, and so much less natural than others. It is the last and extremest kind of dying. The further it is from us, so much the less is it to be hoped for. Indeed, it is the limit beyond which we shall not pass, and which the law of nature hath prescribed unto us as that which should not be outgone by any, but it is a rare privilege peculiar unto her self, to make us continue unto it. 

Michel, Signeur de Montaigne

Why should a man desire in any way 
To vary from the kindly race of men 
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance 
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all? 

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Montaigne passage is cited as an inspiration to Shakespeare in King Lear (II. iv. 139-41), but how about that line in Tithonus? Seems reasonable to assume Tennyson had read it.

Books Read in 2019

This year I read more fiction than in previous years. The actual number of titles doesn’t reflect what the pie chart of my reading time would look like, since reading fiction takes so much longer for me than non-fiction.

For much of the year, it felt like I didn’t read much at all: I spent a lot of my spare time working on a portfolio, applying for jobs, and so on, and so reading fell by the wayside until that situation was resolved.

I also devoted a couple of reading hours a week anyway to studying Latin (in the form of Lingua Latina), so that one book took up quite a bit of my time this year.

Fiction (25)

Discovering Jo Walton’s fiction was a highlight of the year. I’d known of her from her reviews, but hadn’t gotten around to checking out her books. Both of the titles on this list were great, though I think I give an edge to Lent.

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn was much better, in my opinion, than Roadside Picnic. I’m sad to know that it’s something of an aberration in the brothers’ catalog, since I’d love to read something with the same eccentric, light, self-aware tone and relatively lucid plot.

The Alastair MacLean books were mostly consumed as audiobooks, as were the “Robert Galbraith” titles. There was a stretch of time there when I wanted a distraction. They were both fine. MacLean wrote post-war dad-thrillers.

The Jack Vance novels were part of a series: each book was short and light. Jack Vance books always have interesting ideas and dialog in them.

  • Woke: A Guide to Social Justice by McGrath, Titania
  • Ripley’s Game by Highsmith, Patricia
  • Brighton Rock by Greene, Graham
  • Kim by Kipling, Rudyard
  • Butcher’s Crossing by Williams, John
  • There Will Be Time by Anderson, Poul
  • The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn by Strugatsky, Arkady
  • Hawkwood by Donachie, David
  • Concrete Island by Ballard, J. G.
  • The Long War by Pratchett, Terry
  • Ice Station Zebra by MacLean, Alistair
  • Lent by Walton, Jo
  • Bear Island by MacLean, Alistair
  • Partisans by MacLean, Alistair
  • Among Others by Walton, Jo
  • When Eight Bells Toll by MacLean, Alistair
  • Lethal White by Galbraith, Robert
  • Dark Matter by Crouch, Blake
  • Career of Evil by Galbraith, Robert
  • The Pnume by Vance, Jack
  • The Dirdir by Vance, Jack
  • Servants of the Wankh by Vance, Jack
  • City of the Chasch by Vance, Jack
  • The Silkworm by Galbraith, Robert
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Guin, Ursula K. Le

Non-Fiction (30)

This year I struggled to find non-fiction that made me want to read it. The year started off well enough, with several books by and about Montaigne, but ended with a long stretch of nothing interesting.

Northrup Frye was a high point. I wish he’d still been in fashion when I was studying English Lit, since his theory (while not totally satisfying) was still more interesting than the structuralists and postmodernists they were teaching us at the time.

Same with the Bloom: I’ve bounced off some of his books (like The Western Canon), but his death prompted me to pick up How to Read and Why on a whim, and I really enjoyed it. If it’d been the entire textbook in an introduction to western literature course, I’d still have gotten a lot out of the class.

  • A Walk in the Woods by Bryson, Bill
  • How to Read and Why by Bloom, Harold
  • What Makes This Book So Great by Walton, Jo
  • Peopleware by DeMarco, Tom
  • On Hunting by Scruton, Roger
  • Fortune is a River by Masters, Roger
  • I Wear the Black Hat by Klosterman, Chuck
  • Best. Movie. Year. Ever. by Raftery, Brian
  • The Vintage Mencken by Mencken, H. L.
  • The Big Screen by Thomson, David
  • Mysteries of the Mall by Rybczynski, Witold
  • How to Talk About Places You’ve Never Been by Bayard, Pierre
  • The Old Ways by Macfarlane, Robert
  • Anatomy of Criticism by Frye, Northrop
  • Lingua Latina per se Illustrata by Ørberg, Hans H.
  • The White Darkness by Grann, David
  • The Sultan’s Istanbul on 5 Kurush a Day by FitzRoy, Charles
  • The Cuckoo’s Calling by Galbraith, Robert
  • Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Schreier, Jason
  • The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Luce, Edward
  • The Once and Future Liberal by Lilla, Mark
  • The Library Book by Orlean, Susan
  • The Best American Essays of the Century by Oates, Joyce Carol
  • Beating the Story by Laws, Robin D.
  • The Second Machine Age by Brynjolfsson, Erik
  • On the Future by Rees, Martin
  • The Living Thoughts of Montaigne by Gide, André
  • Shakespeare’s Montaigne by Montaigne, Michel de
  • Shady Characters by Houston, Keith
  • Profiles by Tynan, Kenneth

Rereads (6)

Gene Wolfe died this year, so I reread The Book of the New Sun. Sad to remember there won’t be any new Gene Wolfe novels.

Rereading Declare only a year after reading it the first time was so rewarding that I continued on to reading some other Tim Powers novels.

  • The Anubis Gates by Powers, Tim
  • On Stranger Tides by Powers, Tim
  • Declare by Powers, Tim
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Anderson, Sherwood
  • The Claw of the Conciliator by Wolfe, Gene
  • Shadow & Claw by Wolfe, Gene

The future of media

Even as it shrinks, the national media is reorganizing around a social media–to–cable news pipeline of daily outrage. It is shedding the skin of its once-sacred “view from nowhere” objectivity and embracing the benefits of cruder ideologies. It wants eyeballs, but it doesn’t want to pay for material. Why do that when a generation of strivers will do it for free, or close to it? … [O]ne vision of the journalist of the future [will be] self-employed in an Uberized model that gobbles up inflammatory content and takes no responsibility for how it’s gathered. These media workers will be ambitious, ideological, incurious, self-promoting, social media native, willing to force the story, and very, very vulnerable.

Joseph Bernstein, from this article

Confounding

Doctor Reefy was a tall man who had worn one suit of clothes for ten years. It was frayed at the sleeves and little holes had appeared at the knees and elbows. In the office he wore also a linen duster with huge pockets into which he continually stuffed scraps of paper. After some weeks the scraps of paper became little hard round balls, and when the pockets were filled he dumped them out upon the floor. For ten years he had but one friend, another old man named John Spaniard who owned a tree
nursery. Sometimes, in a playful mood, old Doctor Reefy took from his pockets a handful of the paper balls and threw them at the nursery man. “That is to confound you, you blathering old sentimentalist,” he cried, shaking with laughter.

Sherwood Anderson

This was the passage I remembered best from reading Winesburg, Ohio the first time.

Obstreperous

It matters not at all in what way I lay this poker on the floor. But if Bonaparte should say it must be placed in this direction, we must instantly insist upon its being laid in some other one.

Horatio Nelson

Almost certainly apocryphal. Sourced to Henry Addington by Alfred Thayer Mahan in his biography of Nelson.

On the other hand

There are some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books.

Jo Walton

The revolutionary

“Do you know what it was like? It was a long time before I could think of it.”
Her right hand was creeping upward, toward her eyes. I caught it and forced it back.
“I thought I saw my worst enemy, a kind of demon. And it was me.”
Her scalp was bleeding. I put clean lint there and taped it down, though I knew it would soon be gone. Curling, dark hairs were entangled in her fingers.
“Since then, I can’t control my hands… I can if I think about it, if I know what they’re doing. But it is so hard, and I’m getting tired.” She rolled her head away and spat blood. “I bite myself. Bite the lining of my cheeks, and my tongue and lips. Once my hands tried to strangle me, and I thought oh good, I will die now. But I only lost consciousness, and they must have lost their strength, because I woke. It’s like that machine, isn’t it?”
I said, “Allowin’s necklace.”
“But worse. My hands are trying to blind me now, to tear my eyelids away. Will I be blind?”
“Yes,” I said.
“How long before I die?”
“A month, perhaps. The thing in you that hates you will weaken as you weaken. The revolutionary brought it to life, but its energy is your energy, and in the end you will die together.”

Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer

Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith loved cats, and she bred about three hundred snails in her garden at home in Suffolk, England. Highsmith once attended a London cocktail party with a “gigantic handbag” that “contained a head of lettuce and a hundred snails” which she said were her “companions for the evening.”

Wikipedia

The private sphere

Where there is no eye there is no caste.

Kipling, Kim

Balance

The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins.

Chesterton

Legion

[Orson] Welles is a versatile, centrifugal, all-round talent in eclipse; but even in eclipse, unique. Would you hear the prefect apercu about the relationship between such an artist and his audience? It is contained in a tale about Welles, Arriving, some years ago, to deliver a lecture in a small mid-western town, he was faced with a tiny audience of listeners and no one to introduce him. He decided to introduce himself.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “I will tell you of the highlights of my life. I am a director of plays. I am a producer of plays. I am an actor on the legitimate stage. I am a writer of motion pictures. I am a motion-picture actor. I write, direct, and act on the radio. I am a magician. I also paint and sketch, and I am a book-publisher. I am a violinist and a pianist.” Here he paused, and rested his chin on his hands, surveying the sparse congregation. “Isn’t it strange,” he said, quizzically but with clinching emphasis, “that there are so many of me—and so few of you?”

Kenneth Tynan

Definitely apocryphal, but a nice parable.

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, IX

July, 2019

Ice Station Zebra (1968)

Watched Ice Station Zebra (1968), a cold war technothriller in which Rock Hudson plays the Commander of a submarine taking an assortment of spies, traitors, and marines to a remote arctic research station where something went wrong. This is the movie that Howard Hughes got obsessed by, and forced TV stations in LA to play over and over so he could watch it. I don’t see why, it’s just okay. They didn’t even use real snow for closeups, and nobody’s breath froze. Good underwater photography, good submarine interiors (I assume). It seems like John Carpenter got inspired by this movie to make The Thing: a paranoid action movie set in an arctic base, where people aren’t what they seem. Actually, the traitor is exactly who I thought it was: Ernest Borgnine! I give it 3 oxyacetylene torches out of a possible 5 oxyacetylene torches.

Miami Vice (2006)

Rewatched Miami Vice (2006), Michael Mann’s update to the TV series he produced in the 80s. I saw this movie when it came out, and remember nothing about about it except that I didn’t like it. It’s still an extremely sweaty and incoherent tone poem, but I liked it more this time. The score is like Jan Hammer and Soundgarden worked together. It has a Nu Metal cover of In The Air Tonight. Ciaran Hinds does an Al Pacino impression, then disappears forever. The low light graininess is awful, and even daylight feels too dark. Jaime Foxx forced Mann to rewrite the entire ending when he demanded it be shot in the U.S. instead of Uruguay. Whatever it was supposed to be, the ending is now Ricardo Tubbs doing a somersault and shooting a grenade through someone’s chest. This movie is the artifact a flawed but sacred process sometimes produces. I give it 3.5 L-shaped ambushes out of a possible 5 L-shaped ambushes.

Seven Men From Now (1956)

Watched 7 Men From Now (1956), a Budd Boetticher western starring Randolph Scott. My man Lee Marvin plays the bad guy, and is the most interesting performance in the film. Scott is on the path of the 7 thieves who shot his wife by accident during a robbery, and Marvin is the evil guardian angel who will keep him alive long enough to betray him for the gold. A brisk 78 minutes, including credits. Randolph Scott looks like a handsome PE teacher, and was pretty robotic in this movie. He was almost 60 when he filmed this movie, which relaunched his career. I give it 3 men from now out of a possible 5 men from now.

Blackhat (2015)

Watched Blackhat (2015), a Michael Mann technothriller where handsome gray hat hacker Chris Hemsworth has just got to track down a malicious cyberterrorist before he strikes again. For all his movies involving criminals, Mann hires real criminals to be advisors or actors, so a lot of the hacking stuff is probably very realistic. But even when it makes sense, it looks dumb, because hacking in movies always looks dumb. Plus, Mann doesn’t care about computers, so he shouldn’t make a computer movie, he should stick to opening bank vaults with a thermal lance. The best parts of Blackhat are the things that are always good in Michael Mann movies: handheld photography, supporting actors with great faces, crazy lighting, very loud guns, and lots of tactical movement. You can see him using wildly different digital cameras throughout the movie, and it’s jarring. The movie starts out poorly, but gets better in the second half, when they mostly dispense with the computer shit. Why do you need to hack a water pump when you can apparently just let yourself into the unmanned facility any time you want? I give it 3.25 homemade shanks out of a possible 5 homemade shanks.


Invention

An invention that is quickly accepted will turn out to be a rather trivial alteration of something that has already existed.

Edwin H. Land

Authority

We need but look upon a man advanced to dignity; had we but three days before known him to be of little or no worth at all: an image of greatness and an idea of sufficiency doth insensibly glide and creep into our opinions; and we persuade ourselves that increasing in state and credit and followers, he is also increased in merit. We judge of him, not according to his worth, but after the manner of casting-counters, according to the prerogative of his rank.

[…]

The thing I adore in Kings is the throng of their adorators. All inclination and submission is due unto them, except the mind’s. My reason is not framed to bend or stoop: my knees are. 

Montaigne

Hindsight

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.

C. S. Lewis, On Reading Old Books

Loneliness

The woman and Enoch walked together three blocks and then the young man grew afraid and ran away. The woman had been drinking and the incident amused her. She leaned against the wall of a building and laughed so heartily that another man stopped and laughed with her. The two went away together, still laughing, and Enoch crept off to his room trembling and vexed.

Sherwood Anderson

Approximately

In that high place in the darkness the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,” was the substance of the thing felt.

Sherwood Anderson

Decay

The biggest existential threat to any system is neglect.

Alex Schleifer

Literary obsolescence

Is it possible that literature, especially poetry, is something that a scientific civilization like ours will eventually outgrow? Man has always wanted to fly, and thousands of years ago he was making sculptures of winged bulls and telling stories about people who flew so high on artificial wings that the sun melted them off. In an Indian play fifteen hundred years old, Sakuntala, there’s a god who flies around in a chariot that to a modern reader sounds very much like a private aeroplane. Interesting that the writer had so much imagination, but do we need such stories now that we have private aeroplanes?

Northrup Frye

Mise en scene

For the Christian, the life and death of Christ are the central event in the history of the world; the centuries before prepared for it, those after reflect it. Before Adam was formed from the dust of the earth, before the firmament separated the waters from the waters, the Father knew that the Son was to die on the cross and, as the theater of this future death, created the heavens and the earth. Christ died a voluntary death, Donne suggests, and this means that the elements and the terrestrial orb and the generations of mankind and Egypt and Rome and Babylon and Judah were extracted from nothingness in order to destroy him. Perhaps iron was created for the nails, and thorns for the mock crown, and blood and water for the wound. This baroque idea glimmers behind Biathanatos. The idea of a god who creates the universe in order to create his own gallows.

Borges, Biathanatos (1948)

Proportions

ADAMS. This is a great work, Sir. How are you to get all the etymologies?

JOHNSON. Why, Sir, here is a shelf with Junius, and Skinner, and others; and there is a Welch gentleman who has published a collection of Welch proverbs, who will help me with the Welch.

ADAMS. But, Sir, how can you do this in three years?

JOHNSON. Sir, I have no doubt that I can do it in three years.

ADAMS. But the French Academy, which consists of forty members, took forty years to compile their Dictionary.

JOHNSON. Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.—

Boswell

This is the 4th or 5th time I’ve looked up this quote, so I thought I’d better save it.

The context is that Johnson agreed to compile an authoritative dictionary of English by himself, and estimated it would take only three years to complete. In fact it took about 9 years, and he had some assistants to help track down literary usage examples. So, even counting his 11 assistants as full contributors, the proportion is more like 180 to 1600, which is still mighty impressive.

Politics

To one who habitually endeavors to contemplate the true state of things, the political state can hardly be said to have any existence whatever. It is unreal, incredible, and insignificant to him, and for him to endeavor to extract the truth from such lean material is like making sugar from linen rags, when sugar-cane may be had. […]

Most events recorded in history are more remarkable than important, like eclipses of the sun and moon, by which all are attracted, but whose effects no one takes the trouble to calculate.

Thoreau

In the open market

A man labors and fumes for a whole year to write a symphony in G minor. He puts enormous diligence into it, and much talent, and maybe no little downright genius. It draws his blood and wrings his soul. He dies in it that he may live again…. Nevertheless, its final value, in the open market of the world, is a great deal less than that of a fur overcoat, half a Rolls-Royce automobile, or a handful of authentic hair from the whiskers of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Mencken

Genre

Thanks to the Greeks, we can distinguish tragedy from comedy in drama, and so we still tend to assume that each is the half of drama that is not the other half. When we come to deal with such forms as the masque, opera, movie, ballet, puppet-play, mystery-play, morality, commedia dell’ arte, and Zauberspiel, we find ourselves in the position of the Renaissance doctors who refuse to treat syphilis because Galen said nothing about it.

Northrup Frye, Anatomy of Criticism

The Structure of Scientific Evolutions

Sciences normally begin in a state of naive induction: they tend first of all to take the phenomena they are supposed to interpret as data. Thus physics began by taking the immediate sensations of experience, classified as hot, cold, moist, and dry, as fundamental principles. Eventually physics turned inside out, and discovered that its real function was rather to explain what heat and moisture were. History began as chronicle; but the difference between the old chronicler and the modern historian is that to the chronicler the events he recorded were also the structure of his history, whereas the historian sees these events as historical phenomena, to be connected within a conceptual framework not only broader but different in shape from them. Similarly each modern science has had to take what Bacon calls (though in another context) an inductive leap, occupying a new vantage ground from which it can see its former data as new things to be explained. As long as astronomers regarded the movements of heavenly bodies as the structure of astronomy, they naturally regarded their own point of view as fixed. Once they thought of movement as itself explicable, a mathematical theory of movement became the conceptual framework, and so the way was cleared for the heliocentric solar system and the law of gravitation. As long as biology thought of animal and vegetable forms of life as constituting its subject, the different branches of biology were largely efforts of cataloguing. As soon as it was the existence of forms of life themselves that had to be explained, the theory of evolution and the conceptions of protoplasm and the cell poured into biology and completely revitalized it…


… The first postulate of this inductive leap is the same as that of any science: the assumption of total coherence. Simple as this assumption appears, it takes a long time for a science to discover that it is in fact a totally intelligible body of knowledge. Until it makes this discovery, it has not been born as an individual science but remains an embryo within the body of some other subject.

Northrup Frye

The fourth dimension

At Dunwich, an entire town was swallowed by the sea over several centuries. Nothing of it is now left, though late-nineteenth-century photographs exist of its last towers standing crooked on the beach. Historical data about Dunwich is sufficiently profuse that maps have been made of the former outline of streets, buildings and churches and their positions relative to the current shore. In this way, swimming off the shingle beach, you can float over invisible streets and buildings: the further out you go, the further back in history you’ve reached. Once, unaware of the ebb tide that was ripping round the coast, I crunched over the shingle and swam to around 1842, before I realized I was being pulled rapidly out to sea, and struck out in panic for the present day.

Robert McFarlane

Liminal moments

There is a time in the life of every boy when he for the first time takes the backward view of life. Perhaps that is the moment when he crosses the line into manhood. The boy is walking through the street of his town. He is thinking of the future and of the figure he will cut in the world. Ambitions and regrets awake within him. Suddenly something happens; he stops under a tree and waits as for a voice calling his name. Ghosts of old things creep into his consciousness; the voices outside of himself whisper a message concerning the limitations of life. From being quite sure of himself and his future he be comes not at all sure. If he be an imaginative boy a door is tom open and for the first time he looks out upon the world, seeing, as though they marched in procession before him, the countless figures of men who before his time have come out of nothingness into the world, lived their lives and again disappeared into nothingness. The sadness of sophistication has come to the boy. With a little gasp he sees himself as merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets of his village. He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun. He shivers and looks eagerly about. The eighteen years he has lived seem but a moment, a breathing space in the long march of humanity. Already he hears death calling. With all his heart he wants to come close to some other human, touch someone with his hands, be touched by the hand of another. If he prefers that the other be a woman, that is because he believes that a woman will be gentle, that she will understand. He wants, most of all, understanding.

Sherwood Anderson

The devil

She had seen the devil in her house one day and chased it upstairs with a prayerbook and shut it in the box room. Afterwards, she asked my grandfather to brick up the door to the box room so the devil couldn’t get out. Years later, after she died, he unbricked the door and we went in, consumed with curiousity, to find a printing press. He threw it out, but not before we helped ourselves to a number of blank calling cards and some of the leaden letters.

Jo Walton

Trust

No man ever quite believes in any other man. One may believe in an idea absolutely, but not in a man. In the highest confidence there is always a flavor of doubt—a feeling, half instinctive and half logical, that, after all, the scoundrel may have something up his sleeve.

Mencken

Flotsam

He who travels by sea is nothing but a worm on a piece of wood, a trifle in the midst of a powerful creation. The waters play about with him at will, and no one but God can help him.

Muhammed As-Saffar

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, V

Volume V, Jan. – Feb. 2019

The Dam Busters (1955)

Watched The Dam Busters (1955), about the real but hard to believe Operation Chastise, where the RAF used 6-ton bombs to blow up German dams by skipping them over the surface of the water. Surprisingly good movie, despite primitive VFX and an unfortunately named dog. The story followed both the engineer who came up with the plan (Barnes Wallis: any relation?) and the pilots who delivered them. Evidently a riot in the RAF is roughly as intense as a tickle fight anywhere else. As in real life, the best leader is also the handsomest. I give it 3.75 engraved cricket bats out of a possible 5 engraved cricket bats.

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

Watched Kelly’s Heroes (1970), in which Clint Eastwood and Telly Savalas lead a small army deep into Nazi territory to steal $16 million in gold bars for themselves. An anti-Vietnam movie set in WWII. Because Donald Sutherland is in it, it has a greasy hippy vibe, but because Clint Eastwood is in it, it doesn’t quite go full Laugh-In. Telly Savalas is cool as hell in this movie. Don Rickles stops just short of calling people hockey pucks, and is great as always. From scene to scene, people hold the guns wrong or not. Lots of very good explosions. Apparently the studio cut out the scenes that would have made it great. I give it 3.75 gold bars out of a possible 5 gold bars.

Giant (1956)

Watched Giant (1956), starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and pre-LSD Dennis Hopper as a little twerp. Sprawling epic about wealthy Texans and the 20th century. James Dean was a squinty-eyed, fidgety lowlife from the first scene, and I was afraid he was supposed to be the good guy. I’m glad I was wrong: Bick Benedict isn’t perfect, but at least he’s got an arc. It starts slow, then accelerates in time and pace. I guess uncle Bawley can fly a plane? Good performance by Liz Taylor. Texas looks like Mars in this movie. Some great shots, and great set direction throughout. The black horse became the black car, and that’s the changing west, get it? Never forget Pedro the turkey. This movie is almost 3.5 hours long, but in the end it was worth watching. I give it 4.5 bedside coffee pots out of a possible 5 bedside coffee pots. (edited)

Mission: Impossible Fallout (2018)

Watched Mission: Impossible Fallout (2018). The plot is a labyrinth, at its center there’s a cavity; empty space. Along the way there’s awesome car fishtailing, a cool tactical sequence, a ridiculous bathroom fight where someone tears a pipe in half, and a foot chase sequence whose stakes depend on how fast an old man can run. This is a world in which the government is totally incompetent, if not adversarial, and only Randian supermen can save the day. Henry Cavill makes a great cartoon villain. Heads up, Hollywood: if you shoot a nuclear bomb, it doesn’t detonate. The movie sets up a moral dilemma (exposited by Alex Baldwin 10 minutes into the movie) and then totally abandons it in the climax. The presence of such honest, straightforward practical stunts in this movie make the CGI stunts in this movie look even worse. Maybe the best Mission: Impossible movie, tied with GhostPro. I give it 4 iphone apps out of a possible 5 iphone apps, or whatever I gave GhostPro.

Ed Wood (1994)

Watched Ed Wood (1994), which I’d never seen before. Johnny Depp’s performance does not work for me: he is never believable as a real person. The main cast all feel like cartoons, and then the bit players all feel like real people. In general, the movie wasn’t consistent about whether it was trying to mimick a B movie or not. It felt like a collection of anecdotes rather than a story. The black and white photography was unsettling in a good way, for the most part. Martin Landau was incredible as Bela Lugosi: I’d heard he was, but still surprised me how good his performance was. I give it 3 double-jointed Hungarians out of a possible 5 double-jointed Hungarians.

Sui Generis

Those which we call monsters are not so with God, who in the immensity of his work seeth the infinity of forms therein contained. And it may be thought that any figure doth amaze us hath relation unto some other figure of the same kind, although unknown unto man.

We call that against nature which cometh against custom. There is nothing, whatsoever it be, that is not according to her. Let therefore the universal and natural reason chase from us the error and expel the astonishment which novelty breedeth and strangeness causeth in us

Montaigne

The stuff about God might not be in the original draft; I haven’t checked. Gide noted that Montaigne’s original drafts were entirely irreligious, but that to pre-empt any chance of heresy, however remote, he later added certain sentences, “like so many lightning-conductors”, to channel away the dangerous attention of the ruling Catholic church.

Regardless of whether this is one of those lightning-conductors, I liked the hypothesis that nothing, however monstrous and accidental-seeming, is completely of its own kind.

Futurism

… Unless you’re over 60, you weren’t promised flying cars. You were promised an oppressive cyberpunk dystopia. Here you go.

Kyle Marquis

The lightning stroke

In the financial world, gains and losses are asymmetric; many years of gradual gains can be wiped out by a sudden loss. In biotech and pandemics, the risk is dominated by the rare but extreme events. Moreover, as science empowers us more, and because our world is so interconnected, the magnitude of the worst potential catastrophes has grown unprecedentedly large, and too many are in denial about them.

Martin Rees

Land Bias

The existence of ancient seaways, and their crucial role in shaping prehistory, were only recognized in the early twentieth century. Until then, pre-historians and historical geographers had demonstrated a ‘land bias’; a perceptive error brought about by an over-reliance on Roman sources that tended to concentrate on the movement of troops, goods, and ideas on foot and across countries. Certainly, the Roman Empire’s road network transformed internal mobility in Europe and, unmistakably, Roman roads were the keys to military and economic power. ‘The sea divides and the land unites, ran the Roman truism. But for millennia prior to the rise of Rome’s empire, the reverse had been true. The classical sources misled subsequent historians — allied with the fact that the sea erases all records of its traverses, whereas the land preserves them.

Robert McFarlane

Challenges

Teaching literature is impossible; that is why it is difficult.

Northrup Frye

Transferability

Milch: I think that is the chief blessing of art, the opportunity to organize one’s behavior around a different reality. It’s a second chance. You pray to be equal to it, equal to its opportunities. We both know that some days you’re better at that than others. In my case, there’s a continuing unfolding discovery of the limitations of that vision.

I’m thinking of playing catch with my son, Ben, teaching him to play catch. The particular kind of reverence that you feel for that process, for what you know it will mean to him. To catch the ball and to throw it back right, and to know that I’m proud of him. The opportunity to do those things is transferable to the artistic process as well—the process of passing on, for better or worse, as well as one can, what you’ve learned. And blessing him on the voyage that he’ll begin. Those are special and particular opportunities that are given an artist.

From David Milch’s Third Act

The flip side

So many horrors could not have been possible without so many virtues. Doubtless, much science was needed to kill so many, to waste so much property, annihilate so many cities in so short a time; but moral qualities in like number were also needed. Are Knowledge and Duty, then, suspect?

Paul Valéry

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, VIII

May/June, 2019

The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

Watched The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Kurosawa’s interpretation of Hamlet (1602) into the postwar Japanese corporate world. Toshiro Mifune plays the son of a murdered father, whose carefully-plotted revenge is undermined by his own inaction and unwillingness to just run up on a fool and start blasting. Like Hamlet, and like most Kurosawa I’ve seen, this movie is interminable but observant and redeemed by its high highs. It’s got an odd climax where the action itself is elided and we get a monologue from Horatio about the consequences. Unexpected but still effective. I can’t get over the fact that Tatsuo parked in the middle of a giant mud puddle though. Loved the overacting and overmakeuping. This is a cynical, anti-establishment adaptation in which everyone still dies, except King Claudius survives and is rewarded for covering the whole thing up. I take it a lot of this movie must be a criticism of the MITI economy and the adoption of Western fashion and values. I ain’t no expert, but he lays it on thick enough. I give it 3.5 office building cakes out of a possible 5 office building cakes.

Arctic (2018)

Watched Arctic (2018), in which Mads Mikkelson pulls a second, unconscious survivor across the frozen wastes. A nice pairing with The Edge (1997), and The Grey (2011), and maybe The Flight of the Phoenix (1965). This movie gave me exactly what I asked out of it, which is shots of a brightly colored parka against a white background, the sound of snow crunching under boots, and Mads Mikkelson breathing heavily. In that sense it was all I could ask for. And yet it was unsatisfying, because they did nothing to convince me he should not have abandoned the other survivor to save himself. He should also have rationed his fuel supply better, but that’s a quibble. In place of the grizzly from The Edge (1997), this movie had a Polar Bear stalking Mads, but the inevitable showdown was much more of a letdown. What one Mads can do, another can do! I give it 2.75 Instagram filters out of a possible 5 Instagram filters.

John Wick 3: Parabellum (2019)

Watched John Wick 3: Parabellum (2019), a series of point blank headshots and lore dumps. Keanu Reeves is the retired assassin the underworld calls the bogey man, or Baby Yoga. Ian McShane plays a sexy lizard with a voice made for ordering Scotch. Some reviewers complained that they delved too greedily into the depths of explaining how the secret society works, but I eat that shit up. I also like that this is a world where you have an underworld surgeon who lives next to a giant warehouse full of antique knives, across the street from a barn filled with horses, and it’s all apparently near Midtown Manhattan. What I really like is that, having established that John Wick is the best assassin, they don’t reveal the existence of some hitherto unmentioned _super duper assassin_ who is better than him: the threat to Wick’s life in this third movie comes from the sheer numbers of opponents he faces, and the mounting exhaustion, and the numerous stab wounds. Dear Ian McShane, there’s a right way and a wrong way to mispronounce Latin. I give it 4.25 armored dog vests out of a possible 5 armored dog vests.

Deadwood: The Movie (2019)

Watched Deadwood: The Movie (2019) a movie based on the classic manga. As it was intended to be, this was just an extra-long episode that tried to close up some loose ends. One of the biggest mysteries of the show, which was not explained, was why Garrett Dillahunt played a villain in season one, then a different villain in season two, then they brought him back as a third character to say one line in the movie. A mystery that I guess they felt like clearing up was whether Hearst was meant to symbolize progress in scare quotes, because they had him just come out and say that he was. There would be no way they could do everything they needed to do to cover the missing 2-3 seasons of that show in one movie, but it was pretty good. I miss Richardson praying to his elk god. I guess Mose Manuel had a heart attack or something? How did Con Stapleton become a minister? Where THE FUCK is Langrishe? Knowing we’ll never have the answers to these questions is troubling to me. “All bleeding stops eventually.” I give it 3.5 cans of peaches out of a possible 5 cans of peaches.

Lone Star (1996)

Watched Lone Star (1996) a John Sayles-directed character drama set on the Texas-Mexico border. Nominally aabout Sheriff Chris Cooper investigating a 40 year old murder committed by his father, legendary town Sheriff Matthew McConaughey, it’s more about the overlapping stories of the people in town. The transitions between the modern day scenes and the flashbacks are so good they almost take you out of the movie. Lots of theatrical dialog that people don’t say, but it sounds good. This is called a contemporary western, but I disagree: a western involves civilization needing the help of barbarians. Lone Star is just a mystery set in Texas, and the characters wear Texas hats and Texas shoes. I give it 3.9 bottles of Falstaff out of a possible 5 bottles of Falstaff.

Attack (1956)

Watched Attack (1956), Robert Aldrich’s antiwar WWII movie. Jack Palance is a heroic army Lieutenant who promises to kill his cowardly Commander, Eddie Albert, if the latter’s incompetence gets any more men killed. When it does, he turns into The Revenant, takes out a couple of Panzers on his own, gets run over by one, finds Albert preparing to surrender to the Germans, and dies before getting his revenge. His men are left to decide what the right thing to do is. Palance’s ghoulish silhouette staggering down the cellar stairs is a memorable image, but he made a bad choice to die with his mouth open, because you can see his tongue moving after he’s dead. Lee Marvin does all his acting from behind a cigar. The movie definitely zigged when I thought it would zag. Felt authentic, and sure enough half the cast are veterans, including Albert, who won a Bronze Star and starred in Green Acres. I give it 3.5 bottles of bonded Kentucky bourbon out of a possible 5 bottles of bonded Kentucky bourbon.

Revenge (2017)

Watched Revenge (2017), a revenge movie made by Europeans and set in the United States, in which a young woman stalks her would-be murderers through the desert. Peyote functions for her like spinach does for Popeye. A short list of things this movie doesn’t know about: running, falling, fire, ants, having a branch sticking out of you, hunting licenses, blood, weather, guns, tattoos. To hunt coyotes these three men brought scoped shotguns and the same model of Winchester my dad used to hunt elk. The director is preoccupied with macro shots of gore, and cites David Cronenberg as an influence; wish I’d know beforehand. At the beginning of the movie the woman is naked, and at the end of the movie the man is. Every time there’s water on screen something bad happens. Whatever that candy bar the fat one had, I want one! I give it 2 Lolita earrings out of a possible 5 Lolita earrings.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Watched Anatomy of a Murder (1959), an Otto Preminger film in which Jimmy Stewart plays a lawyer trying to get a confessed murderer off the hook. Fully an hour and forty minutes of tense courtroom scenes. Stewart ate a single hard boiled egg and a beer for lunch. Is this the first movie to use the “I’m just a simple country lawyer” line? The actor playing the judge in this movie is the actual lawyer who asked Joseph McCarthy if, at long last, he had no sense of decency. Like 12 Angry Men (1957) this is a movie that can’t completely trust what happens in the courtroom. It hangs on an obscure precedent that redefines the insanity defense, but only in Michigan. We never know if Ben Gazzara is lying or not, only that he is found not guilty. 12 Angry Men was a legal horror movie, and maybe this one is too. I give it 4 bullfrog lures out of a possible 5 bullfrog lures.

Rolling Thunder Revue (2019)

Watched Rolling Thunder Revue (2019), a documentary by Martin Scorsese about Bob Dylan’s shambling, rag-tag musical tour in the mid 1970s. The tour played concert venues, Native American reservations, and old folks homes, where the elderly were unfairly subjected to the poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Dylan wore a hat with way too many flowers. Early on in the documentary, Dylan himself is interviewed about his thought process behind the tour. He gives an evasive explanation, then stops himself, saying it’s all bullshit, and he doesn’t remember why he did it. I’ll tell you. COCAINE. You and everyone else in this movie were on COCAINE. I give it 2.5 cocaines out of a possible 5 cocaines.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Rewatched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), a movie about getting what you thought you wanted. Casey Affleck is at his most punchable, but he is very good. Brad Pitt actually does a fine job of acting in this movie, but you can still sort of see him doing it. The list of quotes for this movie on IMDB is basically the entire script, and rightfully so. It’s no True Grit (1969). I think the thing I like least about this movie is the Terrence Malick-esque macro photography, extreme lighting, and silence. All due respect to Roger Deakins, it’s just not my thing in a dose this size. That said, the movie works, and it’s the kind of story I like, where it has a point of view that you can discern just by watching it, and most people will get it, but there’s still room for reasonable people to argue. I see you Garret Dillahunt; you haven’t escaped my notice. I give it 4 crawlspaces out of a possible 5 crawlspaces.

Battle of Britain (1969)

Watched Battle of Britain (1969), a very patriotic movie about the RAF’s defense of London during WWII. Stars a veritable Justice League of British actors: Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Ian McShane, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Michael Redgrave, Robert Shaw and others. Structured like the pilot of Battlestar Galactica (2004), with the Germans as the Cylons, relentlessly harrying the Brits with attacks that are only meant to wear them down. Incredible aerial combat; the best I’ve seen in any movie from any era. Dozens of planes on screen at once. Excellent climactic sequence with no sound except the symphonic score. This is one of the best WWII movies I’ve ever seen, and it is less well known than movies that aren’t as good. Silence, in Polish. I give it 4.25 Turkey Controls out of a possible 5 Turkey Controls.

American Made (2017)

Watched American Made (2017), a biopic of Barry Seal, a pilot who worked for both the CIA and the Medellin cartel in the 80s. The movie can’t decide whether it wants to be a Goodfellas (1990) style criminal rise-and-fall story, or a Thank You For Smoking (2005) style sendup of American culture and politics. It splits the difference and is unsuccessful at both. Do they know that the 80s didn’t actually look like an Instagram filter? Nothing really works as well as it should in this movie, even Tom Cruise, who gave about 50%. It has zero credibility for any undocumented historical events. For example, there’s no way that his brother in law was killed and he didn’t know about it beforehand. This is not technically a bad movie, but I can’t imagine why I’d watch it again, or recommend it. A nice thing I can say about it is that the effects team did a good job making Cruise look 30 instead of 55. Just watch Lord of War (2005) instead. I give it 1.5 Gremlins out of a possible 5 Gremlins.

The Expendables

Now it is becoming less clear why the ruling elite would not just kill the new useless class. “You’re totally expendable,” he told the audience.

Nellie Bowles

The tide goes out

Even popular literature appears to be slowly shifting its center of gravity from murder stories to science fiction — or at any rate a rapid growth of science fiction is certainly a fact about contemporary popular literature. Science fiction frequently tries to imagine what life would be like on a plane as far above us as we are above savagery; its setting is often of a kind that appears to us as technologically miraculous. It is thus a mode of romance with a strong inherent tendency to myth.

Northrup Frye

In his cyclic theory of modes, Frye places our contemporary literature (or that of the 1950s, when he was writing) somewhere at the ironic phase, which implies a pending return to the mythic.

Assuming it’s early enough to say so, did science fiction ever end up ushering in a new age of myth? Star Wars, Star Trek, Blade Runner? I don’t think of those as myths: mythic literature (to Frye) concerns the gods, as opposed to even demigods and heroes, so I don’t think he’d count them. Even comic book superheroes aren’t usually literally considered gods in the sense of being those who created the universe.

Would Frye say that we skipped the mythic and move directly into the romantic period because we’re now mostly atheistic as a culture, or are we still waiting to leave the ironic period?

The Gradivan veil

Language does not allow us to make a separation between real beings and imaginary characters, and so the integration of characters is inevitable, whether one has an open mind or not.

Language is full of what are called “mixed sentences”, statements that cross between worlds by combining fiction with reality. These statements allow imaginary entities to wander through our world—as in a sentence like “Freud psychoanalyzed Gradiva”—or, conversely, grant beings and objects from the real world the right to inhabit fiction.

Pierre Bayard

Leadership potential

Alas, one cannot assert authority by accepting one’s own fallibility. Simple, people need to be blinded by knowledge—we are made to follow leaders who can gather people together because the advantages of being in groups trump the disadvantages of being alone. It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one. Those who have followed the assertive idiot rather than the introspective wise person have passed us some of their genes. This is apparent from a social pathology: psychopaths rally followers.

Nassim Taleb

Criticism

Physics is an organized body of knowledge about nature, and a student of it says that he is learning physics, not nature. Art, like nature, has to be distinguished from the systematic study of it, which is criticism.

Northrup Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, VII

Volume VII, April 2019

Sleuth (1972)

Watched Sleuth (1972), with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. Caine is a jumped-up pantry boy Cockney hair dresser who’s run away with blue-blooded Olivier’s wife, and Olivier invites him to his manor, ostensibly to offer his blessing. This movie has more 180-degree twists than Tony Hawk Pro Skater (1999). It’s the first role I’ve seen Olivier in that still stood up. Caine goes toe-to-toe with him, which must have been a nice trick to pull off at the time. Alec Cawthorne is serviceable as Inspector Doppler. Amazing dialog. Great direction by Joseph L. Mankiewicz: never got lost with all the movement from room to room. But, how did he know the song ‘Anything Goes’ would be playing, hmm? I give it 4.5 hedge mazes out of a possible 5 hedge mazes.

Emperor of the North (1973)

Watched Emperor of the North (1973), a movie set in the Depression, with Ernest Borgnine as a sadistic train conductor, and Lee Marvin as the alpha hobo who’s determined non-euphemistically hop his train. This is basically a horror movie, with Borgnine playing a surprisingly intimidating villain, Ahab-esque, chasing Marvin around with a hammer and chain. There is a climactic fight scene that took 35 days to shoot. This movie has a lot of hobo lore and slang in it. There is a scene where a railyard bull chases Lee Marvin through the woods while Marvin is carrying a live turkey. In the universe of this film, to hop a train is to achieve absolute victory for the hobo, and absolute shame for the conductor. I give it 3.5 cigar stubs out of a possible 5 cigar stubs.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

Watched They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), a WWI documentary by Peter Jackson and the cast of WWI. The restoration job is as good as advertised, maybe better. Makes me wonder whether the techniques he used to make the movie are fair. It’s not about a specific person or event, it’s a made-up story cut together from real interviews and footage. The people in it didn’t know each other, weren’t fighting in the same battles, though it looks like they were. It’s the question of whether a lie can be used to illuminate the truth, which is something you usually ask about fictional stories, not documentaries. An image is now burned into my brain: a soldier is so past the point of caring that he sits down on a rotting horse carcass like it was a love seat. I give it 3.75 tins of plum & apple jam out of a possible 5 tins of plumb & apple jam.

Gambit (1966)

Watched Gambit (1966), a caper movie with cat burglar Michael Caine recruiting showgirl Shirley MacLaine, who looks strikingly similar to the deceased wife of the reclusive Arab billionaire he wants to rob. The first part of the movie shows the perfectly planned heist going off without a hitch, but then it turns out that was just Caine’s sales pitch, and when the real heist goes off it has a _lot_ of hitches. Interesting reminder of the jet-setting, pre-apocalyptic Persian Gulf region. For example, there is an opulent bedroom that acts an elevator to a private helipad. MacLaine and Herbert Lom are fun to watch, Caine coasts by on charm, and in general there is less actual chemistry between the main cast than there was in John Dee’s notebooks. I give it 2.5 orange peels out of a possible 5 orange peels.

Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

Watched Kung Fu Hustle (2004), a live action cartoon about martial artists fighting over, well, I guess they’re just fighting over who is the best martial artist. Stephen Chow directed the visually interesting sequences, but left my favorite fight scenes to other directors. It kept seeming like this movie should end, because they’d kind of resolved all of the threats, but then they’d introduce a new threat out of nowhere, which was fine because it was a lot of fun. I would not say this is a funny movie, for my taste, but it is very entertaining. Lots of references to movies I’ve seen, and probably lots to movies I haven’t. I give it 4 red underwear out of a possible 5 red underwear.

Taxonomy

The first book of Moses cites as one of the distinctive marks of man: to give animals names. Now it is characteristic of the ordinary man, the man of the people, to have that gift. If the ordinary man sees a bird for some years, which is not normally seen, he immediately gives it a name, and a characteristic name. But take ten learned men and how incapable they are of finding a name. What a satire on them when one reads scientific works and sees the names which come from the people, and then the silly miserable names when once in a while a learned man has to think of a name. Usually they can think of nothing better than calling the animal or the plant after their own names.

Søren Kierkegaard

Constancy

We get many advantages of our enemies, that are but borrowed and not ours. It is the quality of a porterly rascal, and not of virtue, to have stronger arms and sturdier legs. Disposition is a dead and corporal quality. It is a trick of fortune to make our enemy stoop, and blear his eyes with the sun’s light. It is a prank of skill and knowledge to be cunning in the art of fencing, and which may happen unto a base and worthless man. The reputation and worth of a man consists in his heart and will; therein consists true honor. Constancy is valor, not of arm and legs, but of mind and courage; it consists not of the spirit and courage of our horse, nor of our arms, but in ours. He that obstinately fails in his courage, Si succiderit, de genu pugnat. ‘If he slip or fall he fights upon his knee.’ He that in danger of imminent death is no whit daunted in his assuredness; he that in yielding up his ghost beholding his enemy with a scornful and fierce look, he is vanquished, not by us, but by fortune: he is slain, but not conquered. 

Montaigne

Donutry

Yet it is an iron law in democracies that anything achieved through movement politics can be undone through institutional politics. The reverse is not the case. The movements that reshaped our country over the last half century did much good, especially in changing, as we say, hearts and minds… But over the long term they are incapable of achieving concrete political ends on their own. They need system politicians and public officials sympathetic to movement aims but willing to engage in the slow, patient work of campaigning for office, drawing up legislation, making trades to get it passed, and then overseeing bureaucracies to see that it is enforced.

Mark Lilla

Tradecraft

The Bond in Casino Royale is pretty different than the Bond in any movie, including the earliest ones — even including the two that were based on this very book. He has no confidence in his ability to succeed, and is suspicious of working with women out of a professional fear that he might become emotionally entangled with them.

He doesn't fire a gun, and his only attempt at hand-to-hand fighting is laughably ineffective.

He makes it through the book on luck, and the ability to withstand torture long enough to be rescued. First outplayed at baccarat, and then outmaneuvered in an ambush by the Russian agent, Le Chiffre. Both times, he survives only by being bailed out, first by American money, courtesy of Felix Leiter, and then by a Russian bullet, courtesy of another Soviet agent, also sent to kill Le Chiffre. This isn't the hyper-competent Bond we're used to seeing.

But the most interesting difference is that Bond's arc in this book is from questioning the ethics of the job he's chosen, to accepting that the world is actually less complicated than he thought.

At the beginning of the book we see Bond's internal moral struggle at a low simmer. He doesn't like that murder is part of his job, but he does enjoy the lifestyle it brings: caviar, vodka martinis, and high-stakes gambling. 

Bond frowned. "It's not difficult to get a Double O Number if you're prepared to kill people," he said. "That's all the meaning it has. It's nothing to be particularly proud of.  I've got the corpses of a Japanese cipher expert in New York and a Norwegian double agent in Stockholm to thank for being a Double O. Probably quite decent people. They just got caught up in the gale of the world like that Yugoslav that Tito bumped off. It's a confusing business, but if it's one's profession, one does what one's told. How do you like the grated egg with your caviar?"

Ian Fleming

Later, talking to the older agent Mathis, he announces that he is jaded the whole enterprise of espionage, and takes a postmodern position, that there's no objective heroes and villains, it's all a matter of which side you're on.

"You see," he said, still looking down at his bandages, "when one's young, it seems very easy to distinguish between right and wrong, but as one gets older it becomes more difficult. At school it's easy to pick out one's own villains and heroes, and one grows up wanting to be a hero and kill the villains."

"Well, in the last few years I've killed two villains. The first was in New York— a Japanese cipher expert cracking our codes on the 36th floor of the R.C.A. building in the Rockefeller center, where the Japs had their consulate. I took a room on the fortieth floor of the next-door skyscraper and I could look across into his room and see him working. Then I got a colleague from our organization in New York and a couple of Remington thirty-thirty's with telescopic sights and silencers. We smuggled them up to my room and sat for days waiting for our chance. He shot at the man a second before me. His job was only to blast a hole through the windows so that I could shoot the Jap thorugh it. They have tough windows at the Rockefeller centre to keep the noise out. It worked very well. As I expected, his bullet got deflected by the glass and went God knows where. But I shot immediately after him, through the hole he had made. I got the Jap in the mouth as he turned to gape at the broken window. Bond smoked for a minute.

"It was a pretty sound job. Nice and clean too. Three hundred yards away. No personal contact. The next time in Stockholm wasn't so pretty. I had to kill a Norwegian who was doubling against us for the Germans. He'd managed to get two of our men captured — probably bumped off for all I know. For various reasons it had to be an absolute silent job. I chose the bedroom of his flat and a knife. And, well, he just didn't die very quickly.

"For those two jobs I was awarded a Double O number in the Service. Felt pretty clever and got a reputation for being good and tough. A Double O number in our Service means you've had to kill a chap in cold blood in the course of some job.

"Now," he looked up again at Mathis, "that's all very fine. The hero kills two villains, but when the hero Le Chiffre starts to kill the villain Bond and the villain Bond knows he isn't a villain at all, you see the other side of the medal. The villains and heroes get all mixed up…"

Mathis is surprised by this revelation, not because it hadn't occurred to him, but because he thought Bond was smart enough not to fall for it. "It is, of course, a difficult problem in the abstract," he says, "the secret lies in personal experience."

Bond's argument is the argument of someone who has come face-to-face with evil, but failed to understand the ramifications. He ought to have realized that there is nothing wrong with killing someone, if they deserve to be killed.

By the end of the book, after Vesper is revealed to have been a double agent, and then, like Le Chiffre, murdered by her own masters for violating their inscrutable code, Bond comes to realize that Mathis was right all along. Presumably, this is where the focused, doubtless, hyper-competent Bond we recognize starts to emerge. The devilish, smirking, pistol-wielding seducer.

I don't know that I'll read any more of the books to find out. It wasn't all that well-written, and if (as I suspect) Bond becomes a less dramatic character as the series unfolds, it would be a shame. I like the introspective Bond, and I think that continuing to struggle with the nature of his duty, in a world where expedience is the primary ethic, would be more interesting to explore.

Reciprocity

There is no reciprocity. Men love women, women love children, children love hamsters.

Alice Thomas Ellis

Peace

Peace is perhaps that state of things in which the natural hostility between men is manifested in creation, rather than destruction as in war.

Paul Valéry

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, VI

Volume VI, March 2019

Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). Though they joked about it, joking doesn’t take away the fact that this was yet another movie that tells Spider-man’s origin story. There were a couple action sequences where the faux stop motion made the action sequences feel like a strobe light was going off, but otherwise the animation was flawless and sui generis. I don’t like it when people re-imagine Aunt May as a badass. There were some very good jokes, and the voice acting was excellent, but the hype was too much to live up to. I give it 3.75 Johns Romita, Jr. out of a possible 5 Johns Romita, Jr.

Free Solo (2018)

Watched Free Solo (2018), a horror movie about a man climbing El Capitan without any ropes. Alex Honnold plays himself. I call it a horror movie because the main 20-minute climbing sequence is the most anxious I’ve ever felt watching anything, even though it’s a documentary and we know he succeeds. I tried imagining that he was just 5 feet above a thick rubber pad, but they kept shooting from above. The most interesting non-vertiginous theme is how the presence of the camera affects the subject, and whether it is ethical to do that to someone whose life depends on complete concentration. Not surprisingly, after wrestling with the question, they decided to continue making their movie. Honnold seems highly intelligent, goofy, introspective, emotionally stunted, and a decent cook. I give it 4 furniture questions a day out of a possible 5 furniture questions a day.

Triple Frontier (2019)

Watched Triple Frontier (2019), about some ex-special forces guys who steal too much money from a cartel boss in Brazil and then have to get away with it. Movie was sold as The Dirty Dozen (1967) meets The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), but I would say it is more Three Kings (1999) meets Fitzcarraldo (1982), since the majority of the movie is about the logistics of moving things over a mountain. Oscar Isaac is very watchable and so is Ben Affleck, who gets a couple good speeches and looks eerily like my brother now. Garrett Hedlund is surprisingly good, and Charlie Hunnam’s American accent is embarrassingly bad. This is a pretty broey movie, and that’s fine. There was some talk that it was a parable for military imperialism in South America, but if it is it’s so inconsistent about it that it doesn’t count. It wants to be about the psychological consequences of asking soldiers to commit ultraviolence, but it doesn’t really earn that either. It’s just a ‘B’ movie about some knuckleheads getting in over their head when they try to commit a crime. I give it 3.25 Chekov’s Donkeys out of a possible 5 Chekov’s Donkeys.

Going in circles

The forces at work in healthy party politics are centripetal; they encourage factions and interests to come together to work out common goals and strategies. They oblige everything to think , or at least speak, about the common good. In movement politics, the forces are all centrifugal, encouraging splits into smaller and smaller factions obsessed with single issues and practicing rituals of ideological oneupmanship.

Mark Lilla

The Inner Ring

People who believe themselves to be free, and indeed are free, from snobbery, and who read satires on snobbery with tranquil superiority, may be devoured by the desire in another form. It may be the very intensity of their desire to enter some quite different Ring which renders them immune from all the allurements of high life. An invitation from a duchess would be very cold comfort to a man smarting under the sense of exclusion from some artistic or communistic côterie. Poor man—it is not large, lighted rooms, or champagne, or even scandals about peers and Cabinet Ministers that he wants: it is the sacred little attic or studio, the heads bent together, the fog of tobacco smoke, and the delicious knowledge that we—we four or five all huddled beside this stove—are the people who know.

Often the desire conceals itself so well that we hardly recognize the pleasures of fruition. Men tell not only their wives but themselves that it is a hardship to stay late at the office or the school on some bit of important extra work which they have been let in for because they and So-and-so and the two others are the only people left in the place who really know how things are run. But it is not quite true. It is a terrible bore, of course, when old Fatty Smithson draws you aside and whispers, “Look here, we’ve got to get you in on this examination somehow” or “Charles and I saw at once that you’ve got to be on this committee.” A terrible bore… ah, but how much more terrible if you were left out! It is tiring and unhealthy to lose your Saturday afternoons: but to have them free because you don’t matter, that is much worse.

C. S. Lewis

This is given by Lewis as an observation that people actually feel this way, not an exhortation that we should try to. This is from his speech The Inner Ring.

Mobs

Traffic was being held up by a crowd of people rushing across the road and by curious onlookers in cars, slowing down to gawk at something.

“Look, see the thief,” Kamali said.

It was a sight of old Africa, a naked man running alone down an embankment and splashing across a filthy creek, pursued by a mob.

“They have taken his clothes. He is trying to get away in the dirty water of the river.”

But he was surrounded. People lined both banks of the creek, holding sticks and boulders, laughing excitedly at the man, who was so panicked he did not even think to cover his private parts but just ran, his arms pumping, splashing in the disgusting muck.

I had forgotten how cheerful, even jubilant, such murderous crowds in Africa could be, particularly these spontaneous mobs in pursuit of a weak marked man trying in vain to flee — a thief, a political outcast, a member of a despised tribe. The isolation of such prey vitalized the pursuers and made them shout with joy as they went after him, the toughest men swaggering at the front, the older men cheering them on, the women ululating, the small children screeching and jumping up and down at the sight of all this motion. The vigor, the macabre good humor of the chase, and the idea of certain death were intoxicants. Years before, I had seen similar mobs in Malawi and Uganda, always a large number of excited people persecuting one or two victims. Then, what had frightened me most was the mob’s sense of fun. Fun was still a factor in massacre. Perhaps the reason was simple: weak, idle people, suddenly granted power and the opportunity blamelessly to beat someone to death, are given a snorting animal energy and become joyous in their triumph.

The laughing crowd surged toward the naked man, swinging sticks.

“They will kill him,” Kamali said.

Then the traffic began to move.

Paul Theroux, from Dark Star Safari

Consider Phlebas

Recently reread Iain M. Banks’ great space opera, realizing the second time through that it was a different book than it was when I first read it 15 years ago. These are quotes I extracted because I liked them, they have no real thematic ties to each other.

The only desire the Culture could not satisfy from within itself was one common to both the descendants of its original human stock and the machines they had (at however great a remove) brought into being: the urge not to feel useless.

And

It was the Culture’s fault. It considered itself too civilized and sophisticated to hate its enemies; instead it tried to understand them and their motives, so that it could out-think them and so that, when it won, it would treat them in a way which ensured they would not become enemies again.

And

The Culture, there could be no doubt, relied profoundly on its machines for both its strategy and tactics in the war it was now engaged in. Indeed, a case could be made for holding that the Culture was its machines,  that they represented it at a more fundamental level than did any single human or group of humans within the society. The Minds that the Culture’s factory craft, safe Orbitals and larger GSVs were now producing were some of the most sophisticated collections of matter in the galaxy. They were so intelligent that no human was capable of understanding just how smart they were (and the machines themselves were incapable of describing it to such a limited form of life).

And

General Systems Vehicles were like encapsulated worlds. They were more than just very big spaceships; they were habitats, universities, factories, museums, dockyards, libraries, even mobile exhibition centers. They represented the Culture — they were the Culture. Almost anything that could be done anywhere in the Culture could be done on a GSV. They could make anything the Culture was capable of making, contained all the knowledge the Culture had ever accumulated, carried or could construct specialized equipment of every imaginable type for every conceivable eventuality, and continually manufactured smaller ships: General Contact Units usually, warcraft now. Their complements were measured in millions at least. They crewed their offspring out of the gradual increase in their own population. Self-contained, self-sufficient, productive and, in peacetime at least, continually exchanging information, they were the Culture’s ambassadors, its most visible citizens and its technological and intellectual big guns. There was no need to travel from the galactic backwoods to some distant Culture home-planet to be amazed and impressed by the stunning scale and awesome power of the Culture; a GSV could bring the whole lot right up to your front door…

And

“This is— ” Fal was annoyed, enough to be a little stuck for words. “This is just us now. We haven’t evolved… we’ve changed a lot, changed ourselves a lot, but we haven’t evolved at all since we were running around killing ourselves. I mean each other.” She sucked her breath in, annoyed with herself now. The boy was smiling tolerantly at at her. She felt herself blushing. “We are still animals,” she insisted. “We’re natural fighters just as much as the Idirans.”

“Then how come they’re winning,” the boy smirked.

“They had a head start. We didn’t begin properly preparing for war until the last moment. Warfare has become a way of life for them; we’re not all that good at it yet because it’s been hundreds of generations since we had to do it. Don’t worry,” she told him, looking down at her empty glass and lowering her voice slightly, “we’re learning quite fast enough.”

The Napoleon of crime

He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized.

Arthur Conan Doyle

Rambo III

After the radiator coolant was gone, the Belgians started sipping gasoline. You would too […] the Saharans have recommended it to me as a way of staying off battery acid. The woman wrote that it seemed to help. They drank their urine. She reported that it was difficult at first, but that afterward it wasn’t so bad.

The boy was the weakest, and was suffering terribly. In desperation they burned their car, hoping someone would see the smoke. No one did. They killed their son to stop his pain. Later the husband cut himself and the wife drank his blood. At his request she somehow broke his neck with a rock. Alone she no longer wanted to live. Still, the Sahara was fabulous, she wrote, and she was glad to have come. She would do it again. She regretted only one thing — that she had not seen Sylvester Stallone in Rambo III. Those were her last lines. The family’s remains were found later, and returned to Tamanrasset.

William Langewiesche, from The World in Its Extreme (1992)

Unelected

I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another, for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.

Richard Rumbold, from his speech on the scaffold

Spoken as drums were being loudly played to cover his voice (see note 2)

Tolerance

It seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. You forgive a conventional duel just as you forgive a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.

Chesterton, The Secret of Father Brown

The Inspection Paradox

 Suppose you ask college students how big their classes are and average the responses.  The result might be 56.  But if you ask the school for the average class size, they might say 31.  It sounds like someone is lying, but they could both be right.

Allen Downey

The reason is that there are obviously classes with more than 31 students, and some with less. That means that more students are in larger classes, so a student chosen at random will report being in a class with more students than average.

Moravec’s paradox

The main lesson of thirty-five years of AI research is that the hard problems are easy and the easy problems are hard. The mental abilities of a four-year-old that we take for granted – recognizing a face, lifting a pencil, walking across a room, answering a question – in fact solve some of the hardest engineering problems ever conceived… As the new generation of intelligent devices appears, it will be the stock analysts and petrochemical engineers and parole board members who are in danger of being replaced by machines. The gardeners, receptionists, and cooks are secure in their jobs for decades to come

Steven Pinker

The 35-year life of AI research mimics the life of many people at that age: they’ve given up on their early dreams, but found out a pretty good way to make money doing something much more boring but arguably adjacent to it. Like an aspiring writer who admits to themselves that life as a marketing creative is pretty comfortable, or a precocious young scientist who wants to cure cancer, but settles for owning a home and working for the pharmaceutical industry. AI was going to bring about the technological singularity, instead the killer app is setting a timer by voice command. What would 15-year old AI research think if it could see itself at middle age?

Dystopian and Post-apocalyptic fiction

The difference between them:

Dystopian books are concerned with societies that have gone wrong, or which were bad to begin with. 1984 is a dystopian novel, because it’s about a version of our world where a politically corrupt and all-powerful Party has taken over the country. The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, because it is about an oppressive religious regime taking power in America.

Post-apocalyptic books are concerned with the consequences of the end of the world as we know it. The apocalypse could be world-ending, as in a nuclear war (The Road), a zombie apocalypse (Word War Z), a viral outbreak (Station Eleven), or an economic collapse (Soft Apocalypse). In a post-apocalyptic book, human civilization may be ended (On the Beach), or it may go on in a different form (Earth Abides).

To complicate the issue, some dystopian novels are also post-apocalyptic: the apocalyptic event is often an inciting event for the dystopian turn in society (The Hunger Games).

The Poison Pill

The crows like to insist a single crow is enough to destroy heaven. This is incontestably true, but it says nothing about heaven, because heaven is just another way of saying: the impossibility of crows.

Kafka


The Ad Element

This post is brought to you by the Council for Doomed Quixotic Proposals


HTML needs to have a semantic tag for sponsored content, e.g. <AD>.

The AD tag, which (like HEADER, MAIN, or NAV tags) has no essential presentational requirements — no prescribed way of affecting the layout or appearance of the document — only serves as a container to note the presence of sponsored content.

This tag would apply not only to third-party ads (i.e. ad banners) loaded into a page, but to paid editorial content inside a page. So, if I paid you to write a 1000 word piece about my new washing machine, and put it on your washing machine review site, you’d have to wrap your ARTICLE tag in an AD tag.

This would also apply to other media content: wrap your AUDIO and VIDEO in AD blocks, too.

A definition of sponsored content would have to be in place, but that doesn’t sound impossible. In fact, it would likely be a question of which of the many definitions to choose from. These definitions come from search engines, consumer protection groups, newspapers, and so on.

It may in some cases be hard to judge whether what you’re publishing is an advertisement or not, but developers are already asked to use their best judgment when applying any semantic element, or (for that matter) when making sure their content follows any regulation (GDPR, CAN-SPAM, etc.) . Usually, the rule is to err on the side of caution.

Anyway, there are a few advantages to this idea:

  1. HTML exists solely to describe content on the web, and since ads are such an important part of the web, this is an opportunity to fill in a huge gap.
  2. The AD tag would provide a mechanism to highlight sponsored messages and avoid confusion among readers as to whether what they’re seeing is part of the editorial voice of a website, or whether it’s a second party speaking through them. You may have noticed that it has gotten harder to tell the source of online content (I certainly have) and having a clear annotation helps avoid confusion.
  3. Since many advertisers may not want to reveal they’re paying for promotion, the AD tag would make it easier for sites to safely enforce rules against this bad behavior. What I mean is, it’s easier to say “your content was removed from our platform because it didn’t clearly disclose it was a political advertisement, not because we disagree with you politically.”
  4. It would also be easier (and at any rate, not any harder) for sites like Google and Facebook to differentiate honest, well-intentioned content sources from bad actors, by whether they properly use this tag.
  5. It is likely that, unless self-enforcement of some kind is put in place by online advertisers, either the U.S. or E.U., or both, will put some stricter regulation in place. Often, self-imposed restrictions like this are a good way for industries to prevent heavy-handed regulation by legislators who probably don’t know what they’re doing¹.
  6. And, of course, that it would be so much easier to block them.

¹ Compare the voluntary MPAA rating system used by the film industry, compared with the disastrous EU Cookie Law)

Misdirected

Presently — faced with the immaturity of Chinese sci-fi — everyone in our sci-fi community is envious of the adult sci-fi readership in the US, and see it as a sign of maturity in sci-fi literature. But one must know that senility comes after maturity, and death comes after senility. The prosperity of US sci-fi is largely a result of the prosperity of its movie and TV industries, and these sci-fi movies and TV shows are but a stylistic extension of the “golden age” (sci-fi). Contemporary sci-fi literature itself in US is already deep in twilight — full of works applying complex techniques to express dense metaphors, completely devoid of the youthful energy of the “golden age”; and many magnum opuses in recent years already have an air of death about them. Americans under 25 these days basically don’t read sci-fi; I don’t see what’s to be envied about that.

Liu Cixin (2001)

That was almost twenty years ago. I don’t read very much contemporary SF, but from what I’ve seen this prediction was accurate: SF is now even more driven by movies and television for broadened definitions of both, as well as more ornate and more cynical, while less exuberant and hopeful.

I’ve heard a lot of teenagers and college-aged kids asking for a ‘beginner’ science fiction book recommendation, and I’m always put on my heels by it. The idea of a dependency tree in literature was foreign to me before a few years ago. Maybe it’s just my ignorance, but I don’t remember ever feeling like there was a ladder you had to climb with reading. It was more like a garden where you could walk around and pick from whatever looked good. Something from over here, and something from over there. If it turned out not to be pleasant or rewarding, put it back and keep walking. The existence of a ladder implies an order, which implies an end, which troublingly reflects what Liu was predicting.

Optimism

All this world is heavy with the promise of greater things, and a day will come, one day in the unending succession of days, when beings, beings who are now latent in our thoughts and hidden in our loins, shall stand upon this earth as one stands upon a footstool, and shall laugh and reach out their hands amid the stars.

H.G. Wells

Barbarians

Sedentary people have become used to laziness and ease … They find full assurance of safety in the walls that surround them, and the fortifications that protect them. The Bedouins have no gates and walls. They always carry weapons. They watch carefully all sides of the road. They take hurried naps only … when they are in the saddle. They pay attention to every faint barking and noise. Fortitude has become a character quality of theirs, and courage their nature.

Ibn Khaldun, quoted in 1453 by Roger Crowley

As preparation for the Turks laying siege to Constantinople.

This was more or less Robert E. Howard’s view of Cimmerians in the Conan books, wasn’t it? The advantage the uneasy savage has in finding a city fat and sleeping.

Anticipation

The payoff of a human venture is, in general, inversely proportional to what it is expected to be.

Nassim Taleb

He was specifically talking about starting businesses in fields with existing competition. In order to estimate the success of a venture, you compare it to businesses which are similar to it. But, the more examples there are of similar businesses, the less likely yours is to be wildly successful.

Life’s work

At the beginning of his career, Gielgud delighted in mere strutting and preening, and wondered why he felt dissatisfied; next, moving to another extreme, he formed a habit of “novelistic absorption” in the people he was playing, and gave himself over to heavy, self-concealing, mask-like make-ups, through which he would peer, hopefully but not yet quite convinced. Late in the 1920s, with the problem still unsolved, he was forced to conclude that he could be defined only as a star; and that his responsibility was to no theory of acting, no producer, and no management, but to himself, and through himself, to his authors. This moment of decision comes, sooner or later, to every actor; the moment at which, consciously or unconsciously, he takes stock, and says to himself, “I know my powers; I have tested them thoroughly. And I am fairly sure that some of them are unique, and theatrically valid quite apart from the roles I play. These qualities will not survive me, as Hamlet or Peer Gynt will survive me. My job, therefore, is to concentrate on putting them over while I still have my looks.”

Kenneth Tynan

The color of god’s blood

   The flatterers of Alexander the great made him believe that he was the son of Jupiter. But being one day sore hurt, and seeing the blood gush out of his wounds: ‘And what think you of this? (said he unto them), Is not this blood of a lively red hew, and merely humane? Methinks it is not of that temper which Homer faineth to trill from the gods wounds.’ Hermodorus the Poet made certain verses in honor of Antigonus, in which he called him the son of Phoebus. To whom he replied, ‘My friend, he that emptieth my close-stools knoweth well there is no such matter.’ He is but a man at all assays: And if of himself he be a man ill-borne, the Empire of the whole world cannot restore him.

Montaigne

The Enemy Test

Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities [committed by one’s enemies] in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed forever in a universe of pure hatred.

C. S. Lewis

Averaged across the entire culture, it seems like we might be in the ‘grey as black’ phase.

Punctuated equilibria

Once, perhaps, in a generation, a truce is called between artist and critic. This is when an over-riding genius lands, as it were, by parachute on the very tip of Parnassus, making the land quake, shivering our yardsticks to splinters, and dislodging everyone, authors and reviewers alike, from their several footholds. Standards then rise abruptly on all sides, as they rose seventy years ago when Ibsen thundered down on us and showed us what we had all been driving at. At such times feuding ceases, and everybody gets down to work.

Kenneth Tynan

Books about Early 20th Century Paris

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway's memoirs from the time he spent living in Paris in the 1920s. Mostly focuses on struggles with money, and meeting the right people to help his burgeoning career as a novelist. Juicy bits about other Lost Generation writers like Stein and Fitzgerald.

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell.

A book that is is more about the other side of the années folles in France: rather than Hemingway's bohemian lifestyle of, this is the perspective of a guy working in a kitchen. Describes the hot and frantic life as a lowly employee in the bowels of the grand hotels.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

A contender for most definitive Lost Generation novels set in Paris. It's another one about being an American living in Paris in the 20's, and it's essentially a memoir thinly disguised as a novel. Compared to the straightforward memoirs above, it's more about sex than money.

See for comparison The Sun Also Rises, which isn't on this list because it's not about Paris, but shares the qualities of being a roman à clef that's concerned with sex. Maybe it's okay to make memoirs about money, but sexual matters must be attended to with at least a little obfuscation?

The Crimes of Paris by Dorothy Hoobler

It opens with the most wistful and romantic depiction of the world of belle époque Paris that I've read. It's about art theft, specifically the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911.

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (haven't finished)

Not strictly about Paris, and taking place mostly before the turn of the century. Still, it's a good'un.

Exile's Return by Malcolm Cowley (haven't read)

To me, Cowley is a lost Lost Generation memoirist. All I know is that this book is highly regarded as a memoir of the American expat scene in the 1920s, and that Cowley was disliked by many of his peers, though in secret, because of his position in the literary world. 

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, III

Vol. III, November 2018

Wind River (2017)

Watched Wind River (2017), a crime movie by director Taylor Sheridan, part of a thematic trilogy including Sicario (2015), and Hell or High Water_ (2016). It’s called the Hey Wait A Minute, There’s Crimes Going On In Rural Areas trilogy. In this leg of the stool, Jeremy Renner is a Bureau of Wildlife hunter, and Elizabeth Olsen is an out-of-her-depth FBI agent, and they’re both trying to track down the killer of an Arapaho girl on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. Lots of second unit snowmobile footage. The big twist at the end is that, even though Jon Bernthal is in this movie, he didn’t do it! They laid on the symbolism a little thick, and the Native American connection is tenuous, bordering on perfunctory. A good movie, but probably the least good of the trilogy. Jon Bernthal probably did do it after all, otherwise why would they cast him? I give it 3 cans of bear mace out of a possible 5 cans of bear mace.

Harakiri (1962)

Watched Harakiri (1962). An impoverished ronin shows up at the house of a feudal lord, asking to be allowed to commit harakiri in the lord’s courtyard. His request is granted. A year later, another ronin shows up, with the exact same request. A mystery and a lot of flashbacks ensue, and by the end of the movie the entire samurai class is symbolically destroyed. Tatsuya Nakadai is very good in this role. I give it 4 bamboo swords out of a possible 5 bamboo swords.

Prime Cut (1972)

Watched Prime Cut (1972). What a strange, disturbing movie. Enforcer Lee Marvin goes to Kansas City to collect a debt from meat processing plant owner Gene Hackman. Movie begins with a six minute sequence of an actual slaughterhouse, from stockyard to hotdog. Whole movie is less than 90 minutes, including credits. Pervasive, surely unintended 1970s creepiness in every scene of this film. Home to the North by Northwest (1959) chase scene, but with a combine harvester (just run sideways dummy). Surprisingly satisfying stunt sequence of a tractor trailer driving through a greenhouse. Sunflowers are apparently hard cover in a shotgun fight. Lee Marvin’s most badass line was: “too bad Weenie, that’s yer hotdog hand.” I give it 2.5 Lees Marvin out of a possible 5 Lees Marvin.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Watched Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), with Spencer Tracy as a one-armed visitor to a menacing desert town with a secret its residents want to keep hidden. Pre-famous Lee Marvin plays a heavy. Pretty good movie. It’s High Noon meets Dashiell Hammett. I liked that the town’s paranoia about being found out was the only evidence they did anything wrong. Terrible choreography in the bar fight scene, but rightfully famous for its tension. They couldn’t shoot a close-up of an oncoming train with a helicopter, so they had the train go in reverse and played the footage backwards! I give it 3.5 lemonades out of a possible 5 lemonades.


Perspective

I have told you of the Spaniard who always put on his spectacles when about to eat cherries, that they might look bigger and more tempting. In like manner I made the most of my enjoyments, and though I do not cast my cares away, I pack them in as little compass as I can, and carry them as conveniently as I can for myself, and never let them annoy others.

Robert Southey

The arc of history

Another bit from Kagan: 

The authors of the Declaration of Independence were indeed Anglo-Protestants, most of whom did not believe that Catholics were fit for democracy (nor were women, much less blacks or Asians or Muslims). However, they consciously and explicitly rejected the idea that the rights they claimed derived from their status as Englishmen, nor did they claim that only Anglo-Protestants could be trusted to protect and advance those rights. They even recognized that the slavery they wrote into the Constitution contradicted their universalist claims and anticipated the day when slavery would wither and the contradiction would be resolved. The universal principles they enshrined in the Declaration had more lasting power than the Anglo-Protestant culture from which they sprang. These continued to be the driving force in American life — the ‘apple of gold’, as Lincoln put it — superseding even the Constitution, ultimately leading to the abolition of slavery, the promise of rights for former slaves and for every group that followed, regardless of religion or cultural background. The continual expansion of rights to protected minorities is the one constant in American history. That is the essence of America as it was established by the founders, and though Americans often stray from it, eventually they are tugged back.

Robert Kagan, The Jungle Grows Back

Kagan squares this comparatively optimistic view of Americans with his generally pessimistic view of foreign policy’s tendencies, identifying the danger that catastrophic problems may arise before Americans return to their ground state. In a way, this is related to the skewness issue.

I hadn’t read the ‘apples of gold’ thing, but it’s from a fragment of a note Lincoln wrote in the midst of the secession crisis.

All this is not the result of accident. It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of “Liberty to all” — the principle that clears the path for all — gives hope to all — and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.

The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed, people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.

The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple — not the apple for the picture.

Abraham Lincoln, Fragment on the Constitution and the Union 

Good explication of that here

Both are referring to Proverbs 25:11

Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a ruling rightly given.

(NIV)

There is No Essential Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

Everybody knows that H. G. Wells is one of the pioneers of science fiction. He wrote The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and so on. Here's what he had to say about the distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy.

“Hitherto, except in exploration fantasies, the fantastic element was brought in by magic… but by the end of the last century it had become difficult to squeeze even a momentary belief out of magic any longer. It occurred to me that instead of the usual interview with the devil or a magician, an ingenious use of scientific patter might with advantage be substituted… I simply brought the fetish up to date, and made it as near actual theory as possible.” [1]

In other words, he took fantasy tropes, and replaced the magic with science. Otherwise, the stories were the same. So the difference between SF and Fantasy, in its modern incarnation anyway, was that one uses chemistry and the other uses little magic devils to produce a counterfactual scenario that the story can explore.

Fantasy and SF are in essence the same thing, but with different decorations. They share the same bones, but have different skin.

According to the best physics we have, it's not possible to travel faster than the speed of light. Not today, or ever, at least until the laws of physics change. Yet, many SF stories include spaceships with drives that move the ship faster than the speed of light. Star Trek style warp drives, Star Wars style hyperdrives, etc.

There is no practical distinction between doing the impossible by traveling faster than light, and doing the impossible by shooting lightning from your fingertips. It's magic in either case. SF merely couches this magic in pseudo-scientific terms and decorations (see the Wells quote, above) as part of what amounts to a fashion choice.

Personally, I think of fantasy as a broad category that includes any type of story that posits a counterfactual world in order to explore what the world would be like it it were true. Under that broad category are things like medieval fantasy, horror, and science fiction, among many others. These subgenres are mainly distinguished by having their own set of recognizable tropes, styles, themes, and so on, but are not fundamentally distinct from each other.

[1] (From an interview quoted in Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss)

Stripped down

Striptease has become less interesting since they did away with the costumes. It’s become Newtonian. The movement of bodies through space, period. It can get boring.

Margaret Atwood

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, II

Vol. II, October, 2018

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

I rewatched The Day of the Jackal (1973). The good one, not the bad one with Bruce Willis and Jack Black. The gendarmes have to hunt down an assassin before he kills Charles de Gaulle (!). It’s great ‘procedure porn’ because it shows you every step from both the police side, tracking down the Jackal, and from the assassin’s point of view as he prepares. Edward Fox is good at being creepy and charming by turns. I might have to read a Frederik Forsyth book now. I give it 3.75 dropped lobsters out of a possible 5 dropped lobsters.

Withnail and I (1987)

Last night I rewatched Withnail and I (1987). The biggest change from when I watched it 15 years ago is that it definitely reads as having a lot of (literal) homophobia today, due to the pervasive running paranoia that everyone they meet is out to sodomize them. BUT the writing is still great, and Richard E. Grant’s performance is still amazing. There aren’t too many movies like it — Absolutely Fabulous meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets Evelyn Waugh. Maybe a little slow by today’s standards as well. I give it 3 Camberwell Carrots out of a possible 5 Camberwell Carrots.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

Watched Atomic Blonde (2017), a cold war spy film set in Berlin. I also recently read a book called Declare, a cold war spy novel set in Berlin, except it has genies in it. In that book. there is a scene at the Brandenburg Gate, where the Soviets are anchoring a djinn to the newly-constructed Berlin Wall, and even during that scene, where the elemental spirit makes a face out of paving stones and talks, it is 1000000000x times more realistic and believable than Atomic Blonde is. This movie effing sucks. It does have a 10 minute single-take fight scene that is very good (good job Ms. Theron, and good job camera operator). I give Atomic Blonde (2017) 1 luftballon out of a possible 99 luftballons. (edited)

I do give the fight sequence between approx. 1:10:40 and 1:20:00 a special score of 4 hot plates out of a possible 5 hot plates.

Further Discussion:

“You sent me into a nest of hornets. They knew who I was the second my feet hit the ground.”

No shit Charlize Theron, you’re a supermodel with white hair who is 6’1 in stiletto heels walking through the Berlin airport in designer clothes. “Hmm, comrade, I think something is different about this one.”

And she was told part of her mission was to identify a double agent, so yeah, good chance they’re going to know who she is when she gets there.

“7.62 Tokarev round. Soviet.”

You’re sitting with the head of MI-6 and a highly-placed CIA operative. They both know who makes the Tokarev. The audience JUST saw a scene where a KGB agent fired the gun. For whose benefit are you identifying the nationality?

To some extent it was nice to be treated like a dummy, because it meant I didn’t have to pay too much attention.

They definitely did something I haven’t seen before, which was show historical footage at the beginning of the movie to establish the context, but then (basically) do a record scratch and then say “But this isn’t that timeline!”

Which would be fine if it established it as an alternate history, which it seems to be trying to do. Like, maybe this is set in 2017 East Berlin, with a robot gestapo. That could be cool. But then, throughout the entire movie, historical events unfold exactly as they did in the real world. The only difference is that the characters are unrealistic, and the dialog is stuff nobody would ever say.

It’s like they claimed to be in an alternate timeline to excuse any mistakes due to their incompetence. It’s the movie equivalent of a driver who stops in the middle of the street, then runs into a drug store, but they put on their hazard lights because they think “well, I can’t get a ticket if my hazard lights are on.”

“The key fight sequence that unfolds in a real Berlin building lasts for almost 10 minutes in what appears to be an unbroken take when, in fact, the sequence comprises almost 40 separate shots seamlessly stitched together. ”

IMDB trivia page for Atomic Blonde

Fight scene still looks cool, but not a single take, so not nearly as impressive.

Mean Streets (1973)

Watched Mean Streets (1973), Scorsese’s autobiographical small stakes crime movie. Tons of texture and details. Boy the 70s was sleazy. Hey Harvey Keitel, you can’t be nice and be a gangster, don’t you know that? That’s why they call them mean streets: you gotta be mean! I give it 3.5 red lightbulbs out of a possible 5 red lightbulbs.

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Watched Isle of Dogs (2018), thus S-Ranking the movies of Wes Anderson. Like The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), using stop motion allows Anderson to finally have the complete directorial control he wants. Plot was a little scattered: too many plot jumparounds, and things kinda fell in place too easily (no reason for Chief to change his position so fast). Visually really cool. I like stop motion animation, and I love dogs! I give it 3.75 Hacker’s Corners out of a possible 5 Hacker’s Corners.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

I watched 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). Making this part of the Cloverfield universe undermined it. John Goodman is now essentially right in everything we see him do. Most of the things that make him look crazy are shown to be the work of an imperfect but basically good person, and you have to just assume that the last bit of incriminating evidence will not also have a similar explanation. The last ten minutes sucked and were tacked on from another, worse movie. The parts that seemed like the original story were great. Cool bunker! I give it 3 Molotov cocktails out of a possible 5 Molotov cocktails.

Addendum:

Another issue with 10 Cloverfield Lane is that he is shown to have a good stock of Mountain Home brand freeze-dried meals. I happen to know that your more opinionated preppers do not care for Mountain Home, as the quality and shelf-stability are lower than some other competitors.

I feel that Howard Stambler, who had taken great pains to do everything the ‘right’ way, would not have cheaped out on his food supply.

Upon consideration of this, I lower my score to 2.75 Molotov cocktails out of a possible 5 Molotov cocktails.

Misery (1990)

I watched Misery (1990) with James Caan and Kathy Bates. Kathy Bates is the monster in the monster movie. Her performance was uneven. It’s funny that James Caan’s character basically writes historical romance novels, and everybody celebrates him as a literary genius. I don’t think that actually ever happens! It’s also a good example of when movies contain the text of fictional novels in them that are supposedly brilliant, they can’t be written any better than the talent of the movie screenwriter, which means they’re usually pretty bad. Richard Farnsworth as Buster. Kathy Bates’ pet pig gets introduced but never really paid off. I give it 3 porcelain penguins out of a possible 5 porcelain penguins.

Paper Moon (1973)

Watched Paper Moon (1973). Starring Ryan O’Neal as a dead-eyed small-time conman traveling across the midwest with his daughter, Tatum O’Neal, who is was both the youngest person ever to win an Oscar, and a better actor than her dad, whose acting is wooden and whose eyes are like a doll’s eyes. The script to this movie is really great: every scene has something special. The dialog (unlike Ryan O’Neal) is charming and memorable. Johnathan Hillerman (Higgins from Magnum, P.I.) is in this movie! No British accent! I give it 4 Nehis out of a possible 5 Nehis.

Spider Man: Homecoming (2017)

Watched Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). I’m probably the last person to see this movie. It was great! Kept it street-level, struck a good balance of being quippy but not stepping on the important scenes (like other Marvel movies often do). Great cameos from Captain America. I give it 4 Lego Death Stars out of a possible 5 Lego Death Stars.

High and Low (1963)

Watched High & Low (1963). What a great movie! Kurosawa channels a mannered Hitchcock thriller at the beginning, but by the end it’s like a tough, gritty William Friedkin police procedural. The transition is perfect. Original title was Heaven and Hell, but High and Low is so much more fitting, in English anyway. Very odd choice to include exactly one colored image in a black and white movie, but now I know where Spielberg got the idea. The obligatory night club scene was actually so visually interesting that, like the cops, I lost track of the guy they were tailing. A cannonball-shaped inspector nicknamed Bos’n was the best character. I give it 5 Caloric Punch out of a possible 5 Caloric Punch.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

I watched Murder on the Orient Express (2017). Someone on this train murdered Johnny Depp: was it you? Compared to the 1974 adaptation of the same novel, this version is prettier, but somehow even cheesier. The mustache is crazier, the Belgian accent is terrible. The cinematography (photography?) is gorgeous, even seeing it on my monitor rather than in 70mm. They pretty much used every conceivable way to shoot inside a train car without it getting repetitive. However, the CG was unnecessary, as were the pointless action sequences (Poirot chases someone on a train bridge? Poirot is in a gun battle?). Daisy Ridley is probably the best actor in the bunch, to my surprise (since she was not especially good in Star Wars, though come to think of it none of the good actors in that movie were any good in that movie, hmm must be because the movie sucked). Pretty sure the worst parts of this movie were added in by Branagh to make it more appealing to modern palettes, but it didn’t really work for me. I give it 3 red kimonos out of a possible 5 red kimonos.

Speed Racer (2008)

Watched Speed Racer (2008), a hallucination with a theme: keeping your integrity in the film racing industry. Reminded me of Dick Tracy (1990) for some reason, and even more so of Tim Burton. I was not surprised to see Joel Silver’s name come up in the credits either. Visually it is incredible and worth watching. I just kept thinking how could they film so many scenes with the chimpanzee and that little kid when everybody knows chimps attack little kids on sight. Was that all green-screened? The story was odd: how many acts did it have? They really liked to tease you with the Speed Racer (1967) theme, just playing a few notes of it here and there. Hey, gimme that whole theme song! I give it 3 Bernoulli Convergenators out of a possible 5 Bernoulli Convergenators

Futurism

“When we think of information technology we forget about postal systems, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, and television […] When we celebrate on-line shopping, the mail order catalogue goes missing.”


To read, for instance, that the film The Net boldly anticipated online pizza delivery decades ahead of its arrival ignores the question of how much of an advance it is: Using an electronic communication medium to order a real-time, customizable pizza has been going on since the 1960s. And when I took a subway to a café to write this article and electronically transmit it to a distant editor, I was doing something I could have done in New York City in the 1920s, using that same subway, the Roosevelt Brothers coffee shop, and the telegram, albeit less efficiently. (Whether all that efficiency has helped me personally, or just made me work more for declining wages, is an open question). We expect more change than actually happens in the future because we imagine our lives have changed more than they actually have.

[…]

One futurist noted that a 1960s film of the “office of the future” made on-par technological predictions (fax machines and the like), but had a glaring omission: The office had no women.9 Self-driving car images of the 1950s showed families playing board games as their tail-finned cars whisked down the highways. Now, 70 years later, we suspect the automated car will simply allow for the expansion of productive time, and hence working hours. The self-driving car has, in a sense, always been a given. But modern culture hasn’t.

Tom Vanderbilt, Why Futurism Has a Cultural Blind Spot

Books Read in 2018

Compared to previous years, I read a lot more fiction and reread a lot more books. I read more in general than last year, though it is a mix of short, easy stuff like the Amber series and the Wayward Pines trilogy, and meatier stuff that took up a lot more time. I self-consciously tried to fill in some major gaps in my knowledge by reading Homer and Milton, and while this felt like homework, I think it was worth the effort.

Fiction (18)

Declare was easily the best fiction I read this year, and right now I’m thinking of it as one of my top 10 books of all time. True Grit was worth reading despite being so faithfully represented in both movie versions because the writing is so unique. The Wayward Pines trilogy was like popcorn. Probably the least likable book on this list is The Pesthouse, but I liked that one well enough. A good crop of books, all in all.

  • The Peripheral by Gibson, William
  • Declare by Powers, Tim
  • The White Cottage Mystery by Allingham, Margery
  • The Fall of Hyperion by Simmons, Dan
  • Green Magic by Vance, Jack
  • The Last Town by Crouch, Blake
  • Paradise Lost by Milton, John
  • Wayward by Crouch, Blake
  • Pines by Crouch, Blake
  • The Wolves of Paris by Mannix, Daniel P.
  • The Devil in a Forest by Wolfe, Gene
  • True Grit by Portis, Charles
  • Casino Royale by Fleming, Ian
  • The Pesthouse by Crace, Jim
  • Murder On Monday by Purser, Ann
  • Island Nights’ Entertainments by Stevenson, Robert Louis
  • All the Pretty Horses by McCarthy, Cormac
  • The Iliad by Homer

Non-Fiction(31)

More of a mixed bag, as usual. Dark Territory and The Jungle Grows Back were both revelations for me, two alien perspectives on the world that will leave their marks. Fooled by Randomness was much better than The Black Swan, but Taleb is a good thinker and writer whom I will continue with. Same with Pierre Bayard: a fun new thinker worth more exploration in the next year.

  • Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong by Bayard, Pierre
  • The Black Swan by Taleb, Nassim Nicholas
  • Do Anything Volume 1 by Ellis, Warren
  • The Jungle Grows Back by Kagan, Robert
  • Dark Star Safari by Theroux, Paul
  • The Unwinding by Packer, George
  • How to Talk to Anyone by Lowndes, Leil
  • 1453 by Crowley, Roger
  • Do Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead?by Pinker, Steven
  • Literary Feuds by Arthur, Anthony
  • Dark Territory by Kaplan, Fred
  • Graphic Design Visionaries by Roberts, Caroline
  • The Road to Somewhere by Goodhart, David
  • Ghosts of the Tsunami by Parry, Richard Lloyd
  • The Greek Myths by Graves, Robert
  • Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook by Hubbard, Elbert
  • Everybody Lies by Stephens-Davidowitz, Seth
  • Design As Art by Munari, Bruno
  • Fooled by Randomness by Taleb, Nassim Nicholas
  • The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Booth, Michael
  • A Gentleman Publisher’s Commonplace Book by Murray, John G.
  • The Possessed by Batuman, Elif
  • The Red Atlas by Davies, John
  • How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Covert, Abby
  • Adventures in the Screen Trade by Goldman, William
  • Soonish by Weinersmith, Kelly
  • The Shallows by Carr, Nicholas
  • Paul Valery: An Anthology by Valéry, Paul
  • How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Bayard, Pierre
  • The Secret Lives of Color by St Clair, Kassia
  • What I Learned Losing a Million Dollarsby Paul, Jim

Rereads (13)

This is the fourth time I’ve reread the entire Amber series, and there are some books in it that I’ve read ten times at least. I read Beowulf in high school English, but thought it was worth another shot as an adult (it was fine). Herbert and Banks were reread as part of a book club

  • Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Heaney, Seamus
  • Consider Phlebas by Banks, Iain M.
  • This Immortal by Zelazny, Roger
  • Hyperion by Simmons, Dan
  • Prince of Chaos by Zelazny, Roger
  • Knight of Shadows by Zelazny, Roger
  • Sign of Chaos by Zelazny, Roger
  • Dune by Herbert, Frank
  • Blood of Amberby Zelazny, Roger
  • Trumps of Doom by Zelazny, Roger
  • The Courts of Chaosby Zelazny, Roger
  • The Hand of Oberon by Zelazny, Roger
  • Sign of the Unicorn by Zelazny, Roger

The Jungle

People today ask what threatens the present order, but that is the wrong question. The order is an artificial creation subject to the forces of geopolitical inertia. Deeply etched patterns of history, interrupted these past seven decades, remain and exert their pull. The question is not what will bring down the liberal order but what can possibly hold it up? If the liberal order is like a garden, artificial and forever threatened by the forces of nature, preserving it requires a persistent, unending struggle against the vines and weeds that are constantly working to undermine it from within and overwhelm it from without. 

Robert Kagan, The Jungle Grows Back

This is the thesis statement for Kagan’s book, which was an easy read but a hard problem to contend with. I’m typically not an interventionist, but he makes a pretty strong case which has nudged my thinking a little bit. The thought of a world in which the U.S. bankrolls an unending hot-and-cold war against the rhyme scheme of history is frightening. Anything that never ends and gets riskier every day is bound to fail. What’s the alternative? 

The Eye of the Beholder

The epithet beautiful is used by surgeons to describe operations which their patients describe as ghastly, by physicists to describe methods of measurement which leave sentimentalists cold, by lawyers to describe cases which ruin all the parties to them, and by lovers to describe the objects of their infatuation, however unattractive they may appear to the unaffected spectator.

George Bernard Shaw

How to kill a djinn

“I read the oldest fragments of the Hezar Efsan, which was the core of the Thousand Nights and One Night; and in the Midian mountains of the Hejaz I found communities of Magians, fire-worshippers, and traded gold and medical-supply whole blood and thermite bombs for the privilege of witnesses their distressing mountain-top liturgies. In all the very oldest records, djinn are described as being killed by … trivial-seeming things: someone carelessly throwing a date-stone at one of them, or accidentally hitting with with a misaimed fowling arrow, or even by taking a sparrow out of a hidden nest. Eventually I decided that the way to kill a djinn was to change the shape of its animated substance in a particular way.”

[…]

“I decided that a Shihab meteorite would comprise the death of a djinn —not in the stone’s internal structure, but in its melted and re-hardened shape. The meteorites are always pitted with round holes, like bubbles, uniform in their dimensions but of all sizes, even down to microscopic; I concluded that the concavities in the surface of the meteorite are the imprint of a djinn’s death, repeated at every possible scale, and that if I could summon the djinn down from the mountain peak to the stone in the gorge, and then explode it in the midst of them, the pieces would be propelled into the substances of the creatures, forcing their stuff to assume the complementary convex shape.”

[…]

“The djinn are supposed to have existed before mankind…and in many ways they are a more primitive sort of life, more crude. Their thoughts are kinetic macroscopic events, wind and fire and sandstorms, gross and literal. What the djinn imagine is done: for them to imagine it is to have done it, and for them to be reminded of it is for them to do it again. Their thoughts are things, things in motion, and their memories are literal things too, preserved for potential reference—wedding rings and gold teeth looted from graves, and bones in the sand, and scorch marks on floors, all ready to spring into renewed activity again at a reminder […] To impose a memory-shape onto their physical makeup is to forcibly impose an experience—which, in the case of a Shihab meteorite’s imprint, is death.”

Tim Powers, Declare

Broad shoulders

Someone said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.

T.S. Eliot

Spoiling milk

Human kindness is often simply a side effect of liability prevention

Mikita Brottman, An Unexplained Death

Water

The physiologists who specialize in thirst seem never to have experienced it. This surprises me. You would think that someone interested in thirst would want to stop drinking for a while. It is easy to arrange, and can be done safely. But the physiologists pursue knowledge, not experience. They use words based in Greek, which soften the subject. For instance, they would describe the Sahara — the burning sand, the fierce, relentless sky — as dipsogenic, meaning”thirst-provoking.” In discussing Lag Lag’s case, they might say he progressed from eudipsia, meaning “ordinary thirst,” through bouts of hyperdipsia, meaning”temporary intense thirst,” to polydipsia, by which they mean “sustained,excessive thirst.” We can define it more precisely: since poly means “many,”polydipsia means “the kind of thirst that drives you to drink anything. ” There are specialized terms for such behavior, including uriposia, “the drinking of urine,” and hemoposia, “the drinking of blood.” For word enthusiasts, this is heady stuff. Nonetheless, the lexicon has not kept up with technology. Blame the ancients for not driving cars. I have tried, and cannot coin a suitable word for “the drinking of radiator coolant.”

This is what Lag Lag and his assistant started drinking. They had been under the truck for several weeks. They wrote good-bye letters to their families and stuck them up in the cab. The assistant cried. Lag Lag was annoyed and said,”When you die, you die.” He was a good Muslim. He lay calm.

Finally, the two of them having drunk most of the coolant, Lag Lag had an inspiration. He drained oil from the engine and poured it into the fuel tank.The assistant had given up hope, and wanted no part in the experiment. Lag Lag figured the oil would combine with the dregs of diesel fuel, and the mixture might ignite. He climbed into the cab, cycled the glow plug, and pressed the starter. The engine turned over and rumbled to life. The astonished assistant scrambled aboard. Spewing dense blue smoke, the truck rolled forward. After some miles they came to a track. With no idea where they were, or where the track led, they followed it. Allah was with them. A refrigerated van appeared,with water, meats, and vegetables. It was driven by a friend. They broke the seal on the back, built a fire, drank, and feasted. As the specialists say, they rehydrated.

William Langewiesche, The World in Its Extreme (specifically, part two)

Observation

I wonder what day I shall die on —
One passes year by year over one’s death day,
As one might pass over one’s grave.

Cardinal Newman

The act of recollection

There was no blood on the flat board of the saddle; only, caught in the folds of the blanket and on the saddlebag flap buckles, a scatter of jewelry. Hale stepped across from the camel’s neck onto the small Oman saddle, and he knelt swayingly up there as he scraped and picked up a handful of the jewelry.

It was tiny sticks, some curved and some straight, made of glass and bone and bright gold: and not until he found a knobby round piece of gold as big as a marble and held it up to the light, and saw that it was a tiny scale model of a human skull, did he realize that the sticks were probably miniature sculptures of human bones.

He had heard Salim bin Jalawi’s footsteps approaching, and now bin Jalawi was up on the saddle of another of the returned camels, and Hale glanced over to see that he too was gathering up scattered jewelry.

Bin Jalawi had climbed down with more dignity, but he was breathing fast as he led the camel forward toward the camp in the basin. “Djinn,” he panted, “duplicate things. If they ponder a thing, sometimes a copy of that thing appears, made of whatever is at hand. In the desert the copies are generally made of glass, which is melted sand, or gold, which is in the sand. Somewhere up near the Um al-Hadid wells I know there is right now a stretch of sand that is not cold. And hot bare bones too, though they will have shaved some to make their models of others.”

Hale was leading the camel he had jumped off of, and the two others were following placidly. “In miniature,” he said.

“In all sizes, bin Sikkah! Djinn cannot comprehend differences in size, only shapes. These small copies stayed on the saddles, caught in folds—but by the Um al-Hadid wells there are now certainly bones as big as cannon barrels, made of glass—aye, and skulls as big as chairs, made of gold. We are lucky these camels weren’t crushed.”

Tim Powers, Declare

This is the haunting scene in the Empty Quarter, just before Hale and bin Jalawi come up the ruins of Wabar.

Desolation

The spider is curtain-bearer in the Palace of Chosroes
The owl sounds the relief in the castle of Afrasiyab

Saadi

A couplet by the Persian poet Saadi eulogizing the conquest by the Arabs of the Persian Empire in 651 AD, reputedly whispered by Mehmet II upon entering the conquered city of Constantinople in 1453.

The Useless Class

AI frightens many people because they don’t trust it to remain obedient. Science fiction makes much of the possibility that computers or robots will develop consciousness—and shortly thereafter will try to kill all humans. But there is no particular reason to believe that AI will develop consciousness as it becomes more intelligent. We should instead fear AI because it will probably always obey its human masters, and never rebel. AI is a tool and a weapon unlike any other that human beings have developed; it will almost certainly allow the already powerful to consolidate their power further.

Yuval Noah Harari

I like this quote because it shows a better understanding of where AI is likely to go in the foreseeable future. Rather than anticipating general machine intelligence with plans of its own — which is a red herring — the threat of AI is that it can be a powerful weapon used by a few people to exert control (even just de facto control) over a large number of them. 

This quote comes from this article in Bloomberg. Earlier this week I learned Harari’s name from this article in the NYT, which contains this passage:

Everyone in Silicon Valley is focused on building the future, Mr. Harari continued, while most of the world’s people are not even needed enough to be exploited. “Now you increasingly feel that there are all these elites that just don’t need me,” he said. “And it’s much worse to be irrelevant than to be exploited.”

The useless class he describes is uniquely vulnerable. “If a century ago you mounted a revolution against exploitation, you knew that when bad comes to worse, they can’t shoot all of us because they need us,” he said, citing army service and factory work.

Now it is becoming less clear why the ruling elite would not just kill the new useless class. “You’re totally expendable,” he told the audience.

Yuval Noah Harari

Leaving gaps

In 1985 there arose, simultaneously in three places around the world, by groups entirely unconnected and completely ignorant of each others’ existence, a notation for juggling tricks. The notation was incomplete, since not every trick could be described, and like many notations, it was not immediately apparent to the uninitiated how to read it, how to use it, or whether it would be of any real use. For those who understood it, however, it was instantly obvious that it was right. Somehow the notation managed to capture the essence of those tricks it described, and the fact that the same notation arose in more than one place at once showed that its time had come, and it was, quite simply, the notation.

Colin Wright

… eventually we hit on a scheme that seemed to work. And we used it to write down loads of different juggling tricks that we knew.
We discovered that if we arranged those tricks in just the right way, they fell into a pattern. There was an underlying, unsuspected structure. As long as you had the courage to leave gaps. And this goes back to things like the Periodic Table, when Mendeley was writing down all the elements—he realized that if you arranged them all according to function, then there were gaps, and that then predicted the existence of chemical elements.


Well, we were predicting the existence of juggling tricks. And it worked! We actually found juggling tricks that no one had ever done before. And when we took these to juggling conventions, people literally sat at my feet for days to try to learn some of these tricks. And months later, at another juggling convention, people from—in particular, I remember going to the European Juggling Convention—and people from America were trying to teach me a juggling trick that I had shown people just a few months earlier at the British Juggling Convention.

Colin Wright

Taken from Notes on Notation and Thought

The slow realization of loss

A man’s house burns down. The smoking wreckage represents only a ruined home that was dear through years of use and pleasant associations. By and by, as the days and weeks go on, first he misses this, then that, then the other thing. And when he casts about for it he finds that it was in that house. Always it is an essential — there was but one of its kind. It cannot be replaced. It was in that house. It is irrevocably lost. It will be years before the tale of lost essentials is complete, and not till then can he truly know the magnitude of his disaster.

Mark Twain

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, I

Vol. I, September, 2018

Carlitos Way (1993)

I finally watched Carlito’s Way (1993), which is a movie where Al Pacino plays a Puerto Rican gangster that everybody thinks is Italian. Maybe they saw him in The Godfather (1972)? It’s nice to see a movie from back when Pacino was making an effort. In this movie, also staring Luis Guzman, Pacino does an excellent Luis Guzman imitation, maybe the best I’ve ever seen committed to film. Good plot. Brian de Palma could show the director of Jurassic World (2015) how the camera can track complex action in a space without completely fucking it up. John Leguizamo has a magic silencer that means nearby police officers can’t hear him fire 3 shots, or hear Penelope Ann Miller screaming. I give it 3.5 curly red wigs out of a possible 5 curly red wigs.

Unbreakable (2000)

Rewatched Unbreakable (2000). They are opposites: Bruce Willis can’t be harmed, and Samuel L. Jackson shatters like glass. Samuel L. Jackson emotes, and Bruce Willis does not. The entire movie, he has only two faces: inexpressive, and lifting weights. M. Night Shyamalan includes certain things in many of his movies: twist endings, depth of field in shot composition, water as a symbolic threat, and tense scenes where kids want to shoot Bruce Willis. I can’t wait for the next installment of the MCU (the M. Night Shyamalan cinematic universe)! I give it 3 custom made glass canes out of a possible 5 custom made glass canes.

The Siege (1998)

Rewatched The Siege (1998). I had forgotten the ending to that movie: the FBI arrests the Army, thus stopping Martial Law. 30 seconds later, all detainees are free, then there is a spontaneous celebratory dance party like at the end of Return of the Jedi. I give it 3 broadswords out of a possible 5 broadswords.

Sharpe’s Rifles (1993)

Watched Sharpe’s Rifles (1993), the first of a series of BBC movies starring Sean Bean as an enlisted man rising through the ranks during the Napoleonic wars. They made an interesting choice to set the story in Spain and film it in Crimea, and you really get some great shots of that foggy weather Spain is so famous for having. Another interesting choice was to have the main character’s theme be an electric guitar with as much whammy bar as possible, and any time a Spanish person was on screen they made sure to play some flamenco guitar to let you know what’s going on. On the other hand, Sean Bean is awesome, and though he did not get ambushed wit’a [bleepin] coffee in this movie, he did get ambushed several times without being killed — a rarity. I give it 2 field promotions out of a possible 5 field promotions.

Predator (1987)

Rewatched Predator (1987). Turns out Bill Duke as Mac and Sonny Landham as Billy are tied for best character. Who would win in a fight, Rambo or Dutch? Dutch kills the Predator, and Rambo kills Brian Dennehy. So Rambo wins. It’s implied that the Predator visits this jungle in Nicaragua (?) during the hottest years in order to hunt, but 99 times out of 100 he is just going to be hunting random villagers / jungle possums, so why come back to this particular spot if he wants to hunt the best of the best? Go to that town where Brian Dennehy is sheriff and see if you’ve got what it takes. I give it 4.5 MTV t-shirts out of a possible 5 MTV t-shirts.

Gone Girl (2014)

Watched Gone Girl (2014). Horror story about the media. Good cast. David Fincher movies are all pretty good, this one is one of my least favorite. Went on way too long, 2.5 dang hours. Tyler Perry and Rosamund Pike were good! Ben Affleck is literally Ben Affleck. Got that Fincher color palette. I bet none of that blood was practical. I give it 3.5 robot dogs out of a possible 5 robot dogs.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Watched Hail, Caesar! (2016). A little loose, left me feeling like it wasn’t quite finished, but I would say it’s in the top tier of Cohen Brothers movies because the best parts are amazing, and the worst parts are still good. What a cast. Clancy Brown and Christopher Lambert! I give it 4 bernanners out of a possible 5 bernanners.

Den of Thieves (2018)

Watched Den of Thieves (2018). Hey, I liked Heat as much as the next guy, but maybe not as much as the director of this movie, who decided he would remake it. It actually has the scene where the detective and the thief talk to each other in a restaurant, and the climactic point-to-point shootout on the streets of Los Angeles. Gerard Butler gives a watchable, leathery performance in the Al Pacino role, but everyone else in the movie is just a talking tattoo. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. was okay. I wonder if 50 cent was offer only, or whether he had to audition. I am a sucker for movies with a lot of procedural police talk and tactical military gear, so I liked that part. The movie had serious pacing issues: it didn’t need to clock in at 2.5 hours. The twist ending was that it was The Usual Suspects, not Heat. I will watch the sequel. I give it 3 Boracchos out of a possible 5 Borrachos.

Bande à Part

Watched Bande à Part (1964), a Godard film that influenced everyone from Wes Anderson to Quentin Tarantino. Very meta and fourth-wall breaking, so maybe it ripped off Deadpool? It is a low-stakes caper movie that shows the lives of three teenagers (who are played by people who look like they’re 40, but I guess that’s what growing up in the depression will do to you) in the bleak economy of post-war France. I give it 4 minutes of silence out of a possible 5 minutes of silence.

Insomnia (2002)

Rewatched Insomnia (2002). Christopher Nolan’s least appreciated movie? One of his best! The last time he made a movie set in something resembling our world? Fits in the cultural history right between the Silence of the Lamb-inspired thrillers and the era Scandinavian inspired Girl with the Dragon Tattoo-inspired thrillers. Good thing Al Pacino had a reason to sleepwalk through this performance! 4 dead dog corpses out of a possible 5 dead dog corpses.

Farewell to the King (1989)

Watched Farewell to the King (1989), with Nick Nolte as a WWII deserter who appoints himself king of a tribe in Borneo. John Milius can write a meaty script, but he is a bad director, and the editing was awful. Combines parts of Lawrence of ArabiaThe Man Who Would Be KingPatton, and a pinch of Blanka from Street Fighter, but all of them are better than this movie. I give it 2.5 tattoos of an eagle riding a dragon out of a possible 5 tattoos of an eagle riding a dragon.

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Rewatched Catch Me If You Can (2002). Is this my favorite Steven Spielberg movie? Maybe, if you don’t count Jaws (1975)! Definitely my favorite DiCaprio performance. Favorite Walken performance? Can’t think of a better one! Not my favorite Tom Hanks performance, but he is always good. I give it five hacking chest coughs out of a possible five hacking chest coughs.

Language fails but does not collapse

The Greek chroniclers struggled to convey what they saw, or even to find a vocabulary to describe the guns. “No ancient name exists for this device,” declared the classically minded Kritovoulos, “unless someone refers to it as a battering ram or a propeller. But in common speech everyone now calls it an apparatus.” Other names proliferated: bombards, skeves, helepoles— “takers of cities”—torments and teleboles. In the pressure of the moment, language was being shaped by a terrifying new reality — the infernal experience of artillery bombardment.

Roger Crowley, 1453

Kritovoulos, or Critobolos of Imbros, was a contemporary chronicler of the Ottoman expansion.

User Interface

The development of formal systems to leverage human invention and insight has been a painful, centuries-long process. (…) In the twelfth century, the Hindu mathematician Bhaskara said, “The root of the root of the quotient of the greater irrational divided by the lesser one being increased by one; the sum being squared and multiplied by the smaller irrational quantity is the sum of the two surd roots.” This we would now express in the form of an equation, using the much more systematically manageable set of formal symbols shown below. This equation by itself looks no less opaque than Bhaskara’s description, but the notation immediately connects it to a large system of such equations in ways that make it easy to manipulate.

 Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner

I don’t hate math per se; I hate its current representations. Have you ever tried multiplying Roman numerals? It’s incredibly, ridiculously difficult. That’s why, before the 14th century, everyone thought that multiplication was an incredibly difficult concept, and only for the mathematical elite. Then Arabic numerals came along, with their nice place values, and we discovered that even seven-year-olds can handle multiplication just fine. There was nothing difficult about the concept of multiplication—the problem was that numbers, at the time, had a bad user interface.

Bret Victor

Taken from Notes on Notation and Thought

Multiplication

There are two globally renowned olive gardens: Gethsemane, the grove where Jesus and his disciples prayed the night before his betrayal and crucifixion, its agony painted by Gauguin and by hundreds of other painters, and the fictional Tuscan hillside that lends its name to Olive Garden, a massive restaurant chain with more than 800 locations in North America. The two appear to be unconnected: According to Darden Restaurants, owner of the Olive Garden chain, the phrase is intended to call to mind ideas of the olive harvest and Tuscan authenticity, not the final, anguished night of a prophet, dark hours spent in prayer, wrath, and silence.

Helen Rosner, “Christ in the Garden of Endless Breadsticks

Indeterminate

All reality is a game. Physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance; the same description may be applied to the best, most elegant and both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying games. By being unknowable, by resulting from events which, at the sub-atomic level, cannot be fully predicted, the future remains malleable, and retains the possibility of change, the hope of coming to prevail; victory, to use an unfashionable word. In this, the future is a game; time is one of its rules.

Iain M. Banks

The abyss of history

We later civilizations . . . we too know that we are mortal.

We had long heard tell of whole worlds that had vanished, of empires sunk without a trace, gone down with all their men and all their machines into the unexplorable depths of the centuries, with their gods and their laws, their academies and their sciences pure and applied, their grammars and their dictionaries, their Classics, their Romantics, and their Symbolists, their critics and the critics of their critics. We were aware that the visible earth is made of ashes, and that ashes signify something. Through the obscure depths of history we could make out the phantoms of great ships laden with riches and intellect; we could not count them. But the disasters that had sent them down were, after all, none of our affair.

Elam, Ninevah, Babylon were but beautiful vague names, and the total ruin of those worlds had as little significance for us as their very existence. But France, England, Russia…these too would be beautiful names. Lusitania too, is a beautiful name. And we see now that the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all. We are aware that a civilization has the same fragility as a life. The circumstances that could send the works of Keats and Baudelaire to join the works of Menander are no longer inconceivable; they are in the newspapers.

That is not all. The searing lesson is more complete still. It was not enough for our generation to learn from its own experience how the most beautiful things and the most ancient, the most formidable and the best ordered, can perish by accident; in the realm of thought, feeling, and common sense, we witnessed extraordinary phenomena: paradox suddenly become fact, and obvious fact brutally belied.

Paul Valéry

The opening of The Crisis of the Mind (1919).

Science Fiction

What makes us rove that starlit corridor
May be the impulse to meet and face
Our vice and folly shaped into a thing,
And so at last ourselves; what lures us there
Is simpler versions of disaster:
A web that shuffles time and space,
A sentence to perpetual journeying,
A world of ocean without shore,
And simplest, flapping down the poisoned air,
A ten-clawed monster.

In him, perhaps, we see the general ogre
Who rode our ancestors to nightmare,
And in his habitat their maps of hell.
But climates and geographies soon change,
Spawning mutations none can quell
With silver sword or thaumaturge’s ring
Worse than their sides, of wider range,
And much more durable.

Kingsley Amis

Wealth

At the back of every great fortune lies a great crime.

Balzac

A great epigraph, if nothing else.

Provenance

On the debate as to who wrote Shakespeare’s sonnets:

“If they were not by Shakespeare, then they were by someone of the same name.”

John G. Murray

Bearing a cross many times its own weight.

What would be left of our tragedies if an insect were to present us his?

Emil Cioran

Anabasis

We said goodbye to our mothers. They’d been around all our lives, but we’d never properly seen them. They’d been bent over washing tubs or cooking pots, their faces red and swollen from heat and steam, holding everything together while our fathers were away at sea, and nodding off every night on the kitchen chair, with a darning needle in hand. It was their endurance and exhaustion we knew, rather than them. And we never asked them for anything because we didn’t want to bother them.

That was how we showed our love: with silence.

Their eyes were always red. In the morning, when they woke us up, it was from stove smoke. And in the evening, when they said good night to us, still dressed, it was from exhaustion. And sometimes it was from crying over someone who would never come home again. Ask us about the color of a mother’s eyes, and we’d reply, “They’re not brown. They aren’t green. They’re neither blue nor gray. They’re red.” That’s what we’d say.

And now they’ve come down alongside the wharf to say goodbye. But between us, there’s silence. Their eyes pierce us.

“Come back,” their stare pleads. “Don’t leave us.”

But we won’t be coming back. We want out. We want to get away. Our mother sticks a knife in our heart when we say goodbye on the wharf. And we stick a knife in hers when we go. And that’s how we’re connected: through the hurt we inflict on one another.

Carsten Jensen, We, The Drowned

Friendship

Do you know how I make a friend?” He leaned a little toward me, as though he had an amusing secret to impart. “I go about it very gently. I circle around and around. I circle. Then, gradually, I come nearer. Then I reach out and touch them—ah, so gently . . .” His fingers stretched forward like insect feelers and grazed my arm. “Then,” he said, one eye half shut, the other, à la Rasputin, mesmerically wide and shining, “I draw back. Wait awhile. Make them wonder. At just the right moment, I move in again. Touch them. Circle.” Now his hand, broad and blunt-fingered, traveled in a rotating pattern, as though it held a rope with which he was binding an invisible presence. “They don’t know what’s happening. Before they realize it, they’re all entangled, involved. I have them. And suddenly, sometimes, I’m all they have. A lot of them, you see, are people who don’t fit anywhere; they’re not accepted, they’ve been hurt, crippled one way or another. But I want to help them, and they can focus on me; I’m the duke. Sort of the duke of my domain.”

Truman Capote, The Duke in His Domain

I had thought that the magnitude of Brando’s pathological strangeness (and manipulative behavior) had increased over time, starting sometime in the 1960s, but it’s on display in full force in this 1957 piece.

Gray

As the black-and-white photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said to the color photographer William Eggleston: “You know, William, color is bullshit.”

Megan Flaherty, Ode to Gray

Limitations

All living beings have received their weapons through the same process of evolution that moulded their impulses and inhibitions; for the structural plan of the body and the system of behavior of a species are parts of the same whole. There is only one being in possession of weapons which do not grow on his body and of whose working plan, therefore, the instincts of his species know nothing and in the usage of which he has no correspondingly adequate inhibition.

Konrad Lorenz

Attention

We got into an argument whether the Judges who went to India might with propriety engage in trade. Johnson warmly maintained that they might.

‘For why (he urged,) should not Judges get riches, as well as those who deserve them less?’

I said, they should have sufficient salaries, and have nothing to take off their attention from the affairs of the publick.

JOHNSON. No Judge, Sir, can give his whole attention to his office; and it is very proper that he should employ what time he has to himself, to his own advantage, in the most profitable manner.

‘Then, Sir, (said Davies, who enlivened the dispute by making it somewhat dramatick,) he may become an insurer; and when he is going to the bench, he may be stopped,—”Your Lordship cannot go yet: here is a bunch of invoices: several ships are about to sail.”

JOHNSON. Sir, you may as well say a Judge should not have a house; for they may come and tell him, “Your Lordship’s house is on fire;” and so, instead of minding the business of his Court, he is to be occupied in getting the engine with the greatest speed. There is no end of this. Every Judge who has land, trades to a certain extent in corn or in cattle; and in the land itself, undoubtedly. His steward acts for him, and so do clerks for a great merchant. A Judge may be a farmer; but he is not to geld his own pigs. A Judge may play a little at cards for his amusement; but he is not to play at marbles, or at chuck-farthing in the Piazza. No, Sir; there is no profession to which a man gives a very great proportion of his time. It is wonderful, when a calculation is made, how little the mind is actually employed in the discharge of any profession. No man would be a Judge, upon the condition of being totally a Judge. The best employed lawyer has his mind at work but for a small proportion of his time; a great deal of his occupation is merely mechanical. I once wrote for a magazine: I made a calculation, that if I should write but a page a day, at the same rate, I should, in ten years, write nine volumes in folio, of an ordinary size and print.’

BOSWELL. Such as Carte’s History?

JOHNSON. Yes, Sir. When a man writes from his own mind, he writes very rapidly. The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write: a man will turn over half a library to make one book.

Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Hospitality

The art of hospitality is to make guests feel at home when you wish they were. 

Unknown, quoted by John G. Murray

Common Denominators

There are many enemies. But they all come together under one rubric, which is one person trying to tell another person how to think.

Norman Mailer

Uncertainty

It requires in these times much more intellect to marshal so much greater a stock of ideas and observations … hence the multitude of thoughts only breeds increase of uncertainty. Those who should be guides of the rest, see too many sides to every question. They hear so much said and find that so much can be said about everything that they feel no assurance about the truth of anything.

John Stuart Mill

This Buzzfeed article about the Information Apocalypse reminded me.

Homage

Although I have scarcely read a single volume or Marcel Proust’s great work, and though the very art of the novelist is an art that I find almost inconceivable, I am nevertheless well aware, from the little of the Recherche du Temps Perdu that I have found time to read, what an exceptionally heavy loss literature has just suffered; and not only literature but still more that secret society composed of those who in every age give the age its real value.

In any case, even if I had never read a line of Proust’s vast work, the mere fact that two people with minds as different as Gide and Léon Daudet were agreed about its importance would have been sufficient to allay any doubts; such unexpected agreement could only occur in the case of a virtual certainty. We can be easy in our minds; the sun must be shining if they both proclaim the fact at the same time.

Others will speak with authority and penetration of the power and subtlety of Proust’s work. Still others will tell us what manner of man it was who conceived the work and brought it to a glorious conclusion; I myself merely caught a glimpse of him many years ago. I can therefore only put forward a view without weight and barely worth recording. Let it be no more than a tribute, a fading flower on a tomb that will endure.

Paul Valéry

After reading Pierre Bayard’s book (SB++), I spent some time looking for a public domain translation of the Homage to Marcel Proust, but was unable to find one. This is what’s available on Google Books. 

The cross-sectional problem

At any point in time, the richest traders are often the worst traders. This, I will call the cross-sectional problem: At a given time in the market, the most successful traders are likely to be those that are best fit to the latest cycle. This does not happen too often with dentists or pianists — because these professions are more immune to randomness.

Nassim Taleb

All the way down

Those who write against vanity want the glory of having written well, and their readers the glory of reading well, and I who write this have the same desire, as perhaps those who read this have also.

Blaise Pascal

Casus Belli

To knock a thing down, especially if it is cocked at an arrogant angle, is a deep delight to the blood. To fight for a reason and in a calculating spirit is something your true warrior despises.

George Santayana

Recommended historical graphic novels

For the most part, I am even using the correct definition of graphic novel, as distinct from other sequential art (comic books), because these were all conceived of as self-contained narratives. 

Rebels by Brian Wood. It's a pretty fast story that covers a lot of historical material from the perspective of a normal person. There is a sequel about the main character's son as a shipbuilder in the War of 1812, and I might even say I liked it more than the first.

Wood has also written an excellent series of standalone comics about vikings called Northlanders. It's bloodier than Rebels, and harder to remember that it depicts history rather than fantasy, since its subject is so much more distant.

Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City by Pierre Christin does a good job of covering both the positive and negative aspects of Moses' legacy.

Logicomix, by Apostolos Doxiadis, which is about Bertrand Russell's development of set theory, the consequence of his monumental effort to prove that one plus one equals two. It is a metatextual Greek tragedy about the difficulty of obtaining even the smallest certainty in this world.

Crécy by Warren Ellis is about the famous battle in the Hundred Years War. It's short, and Ellis is a good writer. My recollection of it is that it was about how soldiers felt about the war, and that it gets a little blue.

Caravaggio by Milo Munera is also really good, and gives a great feeling not only of the artist's life, but of the world he inhabited. This is part of a planned multi-volume series, which to my knowledge has not materialized.

Flight of the Raven by Jean-Pierre Gibrat is also one of my favorite graphic novels ever. It's about some members of the French Resistance in occupied Paris smuggling people past the Gestapo. Pair it with the movie *Army of Shadows*.

Bad Advice

LUKA
Treat everyone with friendliness—injure no one.

NATASHA
How good you are, grandfather! How is it that you are so good?

LUKA
I am good, you say. Nyah—if it is true, all right. But you see, my girl—there must be some one to be good. We must have pity on mankind. Christ, remember, had pity for us all and so taught us. Have pity when there is still time, believe me, that is right. I was once, for example, employed as a watchman, at a country place which belonged to an engineer, not far from the city of Tomsk, in Siberia. The house stood in the middle of the forest, an out-of-the-way location; and it was winter and I was all alone in the country house. It was beautiful there—magnificent! And once—I heard them scrambling up!

NATASHA
Thieves?

LUKA
Yes. They crept higher, and I took my rifle and went outside. I looked up—two men, opening a window, and so busy that they did not see anything of me at all. I cried to them: Hey, there, get out of that! And would you think it, they fell on me with a hand ax! I warned them. Halt, I cried, or else I fire! Then I aimed first at one and then at the other. They fell on their knees saying, Pardon us! I was pretty hot—on account of the hand ax, you remember. You devils, I cried, I told you to clear out and you didn’t! And now, I said, one of you go into the brush and get a switch. It was done. And now, I commanded, one of you stretch out on the ground, and the other thrash him. And so they whipped each other at my command. And when they had each had a sound beating, they said to me: Grandfather, said they, for the sake of Christ give us a piece of bread. We haven’t a bite in our bodies. They, my daughter, were the thieves who had fallen upon me with the hand ax. Yes, they were a pair of splendid fellows. I said to them, If you had asked for bread! Then they answered: We had gotten past that. We had asked and asked, and nobody would give us anything. Endurance was worn out. Nyah—and so they remained with me the whole winter. One of them, Stephen by name, liked to take the rifle and go into the woods. And the other, Jakoff, was constantly ill, always coughing. The three of us watched the place, and when spring came, they said, Farewell, grandfather, and went away—to Russia.

NATASHA
Were they convicts, escaping?

LUKA
They were fugitives—they had left their colony. A pair of splendid fellows. If I had not had pity on them—who knows what would have happened? They might have killed me. Then they would be taken to court again, put in prison, sent back to Siberia—why all that? You can learn nothing good in prison, nor in Siberia. But a man, what can he not learn!

— Maxim Gorky, The Lower Depths

Tolerance

Toleration is a necessary consequence of our being human. We are all products of frailty  fallible and prone to error so let us mutually pardon each other’s follies. This is the first principle of the law of nature, the first principle of all human rights

Voltaire

The smell of the future

The future smells of Russian leather, blood, godlessness, and many whippings. I should advise our grandchildren to be born with very thick skins on their backs.

Heinrich Heine

One of the great tragedies

There may now exist great men for things that do not exist.

Jacob Burckhardt

There’s a very good chance that the most naturally gifted astronaut in history was born before the invention of space flight. Likewise, the most precise and industrious flint-knapper of all time was probably not a caveman. Oh well!

Burckhardt was the great art historian of the Renaissance period.

Embroidered on a throw pillow

If you have nothing good to say about anyone, come and sit by me.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth

The Laslow Motor

`For a couple of years there, you could walk down to Sears and buy a working Laslow motor right off the shelf. At first it cost three hundred dollars, but got down to as low as two hundred after a year, once the factories started churning them out. It came in a black and grey box with picture of the device and some simple diagrams which good-naturedly tried to explain how it worked.

Truth be told, nobody who owned one really knew how it worked, anymore than we knew how television signals became television shows. The Hungarian physicist Emil Laslow, who won the Nobel prize for developing the device, tried to explain it in terms of oscillating quantum vectors wrapped around a series of stacked disks. The disks were made of a patented material. This didn’t help much in clarifying the science of it to the general public, but then of course, since when has the public cared how things worked, so long as they did?

They did. The box each device came in was heavier than you would expect for something so small—smaller than a bread box, by far—and once you unwrapped it the thing was fairly unimpressive-looking. I remember thinking, when I bought my first one, that it looked a lot like a miniature version of one of those home dehydration machines you use to make dried apple slices and such. Sears sold those machines, too, a couple aisles over. Once it got working, it began to hum, and if you put your hand on it you could even feel if vibrating a little bit. When you turned it on, it produced unlimited, uninterrupted, free, clean power. The consumer version outputted to 220 volt AC, and replaced the power line that went into your house. It was weather-proof, tamper-proof, and bullet-proof.

All you needed was a set of AA batteries to get the motor spinning the first time it ran. After that, you had essentially infinite energy for a one time fee of three hundred dollars—or, if you waited a year and bought it cheap, two hundred dollars.

I was working on one of the city papers when the Laslow motor went public. At first, there was some controversy, because the electric companies didn’t want to install the boxes, and it was unsafe for consumers to do it themselves, since it involved disconnecting the existing power lines that were connecting the building to the city grid. Soon, some private companies sprang up to install the devices, and the electric companies sued them. We ran all kinds of articles and opinion pieces on the debate, but ultimately the Supreme Court ruled that home-owners were in the right. The government ended up creating a regulatory agency that oversaw all quantum power sources. This was just a way to maintain the illusion that they were still in control.

Nobody complained about the power companies going out of business. It turned out they didn’t have as many loyal customers as they’d thought. Hey, it’s a free market system. C’est la vie.

Meanwhile, we sent astronauts to Mars. We irrigated the deserts. We built floating cities. We shot cargo into orbit on a laser beam. Everything was made out of transmuted gold: houses, churches, sidewalks. Nobody froze in the winter, or sweated in the summer. We traveled in silent, computer-guided electric pods that went six hundred miles an hour and didn’t produce measurable toxic exhaust. The engineering paradigm of that decade was not designing ingenious systems, but solving difficult problems by throwing energy at them. There was so much of it to go around, that we could afford to be sloppy and still succeed every time. It is amazing what you can do with an infinite supply of resources.

Then someone had the bright idea that it was unnecessary for everyone to buy a Laslow motor, when the city could simply build an enormous one and plug it in where the power station had been. The technology certainly scaled up to that size, and the government was happy to step in and recover its role as energy-supplier. San Francisco, California, and Reykjavik, Iceland were two of the first cities to provide ubiquitous, free energy to all their citizens. The Laslow motors used by these cities were roughly the size of tractor trailers.

Here is the unfortunate part:

Problems began to arise with these huge devices. Optical disturbances were reported around them. In San Francisco, a power plant worker noticed that if he approached the Laslow motor from a certain angle, part of it appeared to be upside down. At every other angle it was fine. A few days later, the disturbances increased, and additional localized effects were noticed—chronological anomalies, gravitational aberrations, and so forth.

In Reykjavik, space seemed to be curving out from the center of the generator, in a sphere with a slowly widening radius. A curious mechanic tested this effect by throwing a wrench at the device, which had no dramatic effect. A second experiment involved replacing the wrench with a small dog, who disappeared upon approaching the motor. The dog was never recovered.

Though the generators were immediately turned off, the phenomenon continued to worsen. The San Francisco motor increasingly produced disorienting optical effects—viewers standing in close proximity could no longer see in a straight line. Local gravity was as unpredictable as the movement of light, at first producing differences of only two or three times Earth’s gravity, but, much later, unbinding or compressing matter on a molecular level, as was first reported in the instance of an experimentally-hurled banana.

The sites, of course, became too dangerous to approach, but researchers were allowed more access than the general public. San Francisco researchers noted the spontaneous creation of unidentified heavy elements, and the disturbing tendency for the same space to be occupied by two or more different bodies.

Laws of causality also appeared not to apply in the vicinity of the Reykjavik generator, though this was not reported in San Francisco. Residents were disturbed when, one day, opening umbrellas caused rainstorms, and a sudden, sharp pain in their feet caused them to bang into a coffee table.

At both sites, using a ordinary protractor revealed that triangles had internal angles measuring anywhere from 8 degrees to 718 degrees, and that parallel lines not only intersected, but criss-crossed at several points.

Clearly something strange was happening to space-time near the massive generators. Scientists theorized (based on what I don’t know) that because of the way the motors worked, they were scraping the fabric of the universe at the spots where they were located. They tried to explain it to use using Byzantine metaphors involving termites, orbital sanders, or study hall desks, but in the end the basic message we got was that our Laslow motors were in the process of puncturing our dimension, and what we were seeing in California and Iceland were the first signs of local reality beginning to buckle.

Nobody was sure what would happen if the universe was ever completely punctured, but the consensus was pretty bleak. In the immediate aftermath of these revelations, the main questions were, could the damage to space-time be undone, and do all motors cause these effects, or merely the city-sized ones?

The second question was first to be answered. While the motors in San Francisco and Reykjavik were the first to show signs of the damage they’d done, a year later, reports of similar phenomenon began pouring in from all over the world. Apparently, any Laslow motor of any size would begin causing damage to the universe the minute it began spinning (or conducting, or whatever the hell it did). The larger or more heavily-used the motor, the quicker the damage would manifest, but, as it turned out, any point in space in which a motor had been used would eventually show local distortions which would either expand outward, or bend an expanding radius of space inward towards it, no matter if the motor was still on or not.

Someone else-not Emil Laslow-won the Nobel prize for determining a formula to calculate how rapidly and in what direction the distortions would move. I don’t remember his name, but I remember our paper ran a story about “innies” (like San Francisco) and “outies” (like Reykjavik), the two general classes of distortions his research had classified.

Immediately, governments throughout the world outlawed the devices, and sent the military door to door to confiscate and dismantle every motor they found. News broadcasts warned of the dangers of operating a Laslow motor, and the Quantum Power Regulatory Commission started up the coal plants, the nuclear power plants, and the hydroelectric dams again, and offered a free year’s supply of regular energy to anyone who turned in a Laslow motor.

At first, this seemed a bit outrageous, but then I realized the magnitude of the problem they were trying to solve. If the universe was ever completely ruptured, nobody knew what would happen: if it was punctured by an “innie”, we might be sucked into the hole, if by an “outie”, some other universe might be vomited into ours.

Either way, even a single device still operating, or a single distortion site left unrepaired represents a danger to life as know it.

Store records from the sales of the motors indicated there had been about 800 million Laslow motors sold worldwide. QPRC reports, released under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that the agency has confiscated or bought back, at most, 700 million. That means there are at least 100 million people on earth with the capability of destroying the entire universe. Not all of them believe the government is telling the truth. Some of them don’t think one little motor will make a difference. Some are curious. Some genuinely want to be the one to do it.

It doesn’t make me feel safe, knowing my life, and my family, and everything in the world could be destroyed by any one of these loonies. What’s stopping them from holding the universe for ransom? What’s the point of the rest of us scraping by on dwindling gasoline supplies, while they use their hidden motors anyway, and just laugh at us? It almost makes me wish I hadn’t turned mine in when they asked for it.

Late last year, Swiss scientists discovered a way to undo the damage caused by “Laslow-source dents” in space-time. This announcement was greeted warmly. Actually, the process is fairly simple, and involves simply going to the location of the site and hammering the universe back into place with small motor operating in an opposite vector oscillation—innies are repaired by outies, outies are repaired by innies. The process has to be fairly precise, to avoid overcorrecting, but it’s all computer controlled—fool-proof—and they seem to be working so far.

All you have to do to get one of these devices is take a short course on how to operate them correctly. It’s not hard—they want to get as many people using them as possible. There are, by most estimates, around four billion sites that need to be repaired before this is all over.

I myself have one of the handheld units, and on the weekends I go out dent-hunting. Sometimes I take my son. We have a system for keeping score, and we make a game out of it. He’s too young to really understand.

My main fear, which is shared by a lot of people, is that somewhere, someone put one of these devices in a backpack, and took it into a cave system somewhere, miles into the earth, and then left it there, running unseen. Or maybe someone dropped one into the Marianas trench. Or maybe NASA shot one into space without telling us, and it’s out beyond the orbit of Jupiter by now. How would we ever get to it in time? How would we even know where to look? This is what keeps me up at night.

(From the old site, circa November, 2004)

“Suggest me some Lovecraft”

Lovecraft wrote one novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, several novellas, and a lot of short stories for pulp magazines. Of his novellas, At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth are the best. There are about 15 short stories that are good, and most are collected in The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre by Robert Bloch, but also in other editions.

What made Lovecraft unique was his view of the universe as an essentially terrifying place, with the relative tranquility of human history existing in a temporary, fragile bubble of ignorance surrounded by an infinite ocean of seething madness. I've heard it described as "the horror of astronomy", meaning that the deeper you look into the universe, the more terrifying it becomes. Every time we gaze at the stars, or even dig into the earth, we risk popping that fragile bubble and destroying ourselves, and it's only a matter of time before we do.

I read these stories as a teenager, and recently reread them. I don't think Lovecraft was a very good writer, but he was a severely fucked up person, and seeing the world through his stories is an unsettling experience.

If you read one story, make it The Rats in the Walls.

While Lovecraft's way of sensing dread in the universe was one of his major gifts to literature, worldbuilding was not. The so-called Cthulhu Mythos was largely pieced together from fragments in various of his stories, and there isn't much evidence that he had an overarching vision for it in the way that Tolkien did. Lovecraft was writing quickly for magazine publication, not carefully and methodically. As reflections of his personality, his nightmare stories have a coherent feel to them, but I don't think that comes from careful engineering as much as having developed that voice as a writer.

Certainly, we know that most of the Cthulhu Mythos comes from later authors like August Derleth. Derleth was the founder of Arkham House, and published Lovecraft's stories posthumously for decades. He also added his own stories, and invited other authors to work in that shared universe. It was through these stories that the 'elder gods' of Lovecraftian cosmology were crafted.

In short, Most of what we think of as the 'Cthulhu Mythos' is fan fiction, and you won't find it in Lovecraft per se.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.

Paradise Lost, IV, 75-78

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain
The face of God don’t shine
Ham steaks flap on pork chop wings
Soup cans grow on the vine
And the trees with fruitcake branches
Bend right down to your head
We hide at night in chocolate caves
From the walking gingerbread
The summer storms are boiling stew
The snows are powdered milk
Sometimes the skies
Rain apple pies
What we need are medical supplies
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain
Can you build a house with cake?
Can you sow a field with gum drops
Or swim in a hot fudge lake?
The policemen all have wooden legs
The criminals run the courts
You cannot raise a child here
Life is tasty, brutish, and short
And those who tried to change it
They all wound up the same
Skulls smashed with the candy rocks
That give this hell its name
The stars are made of dolls eyes
And they watch you as you sleep
Oh, I lost my wife
When she took her life
With a candy cane sharp as a knife
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain
You can climb the highest height
And look in all directions
But there is no end in sight
The burning desert sugar dunes
The crashing waves of beer
Extend in all directions
And never disappear
For many days I walked alone
Then turned around to see
Like Lucifer I bore the Big Rock
Candy Mountain inside me
The birds all sing my favorite songs
Steak fajitas grow on trees
Last night I prayed
For a hand grenade
To end these miseries arrayed
This morning it rained lemonade
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain

(From the old site)

The Golden Rule

That we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us — that we should respect the rights of others as scrupulously as we would have our rights respected  — is not a mere counsel of perfection to individuals — but it is the law to which we must conform social institutions and national policy, if we would secure the blessings and abundance of peace.

Henry George

Standards of beauty

If you want to know something else about beauty, what precisely it is, look at a history of art. You will see that every age has had its ideal Venus (or Apollo), and that all of these Venuses and Apollos put together and compared out of the context of their periods are nothing less than a family of monsters.

A thing is not beautiful because it is beautiful, as the he-frog said to the she-frog, but because one likes it.

Bruno Munari

I’m not ready to agree that this is true, since while fashion changes across history, what is considered beautiful has turned out to be not quite as arbitrary or mutable as is suggested here. The observation that many things are relative has merit, but in strictest construction, it is not necessary to bite this post-modern bullet.

Day Jobs

ONCE UPON A time, artists had jobs. And not “advising the Library of Congress on its newest Verdi acquisition” jobs, but job jobs, the kind you hear about in stump speeches. Think of T.S. Eliot, conjuring “The Waste Land” (1922) by night and overseeing foreign accounts at Lloyds Bank during the day, or Wallace Stevens, scribbling lines of poetry on his two-mile walk to work, then handing them over to his secretary to transcribe at the insurance agency where he supervised real estate claims. The avant-garde composer Philip Glass shocked at least one music lover when he materialized, smock-clad and brandishing plumber’s tools, in a home with a malfunctioning appliance. “While working,” Glass recounted to The Guardian in 2001, “I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him that I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”

Katy Waldman (Does Having a Day Job Mean Making Better Art?)

Personal style in design

A designer with a personal style, arrived at a priori, is a contradiction in terms. There is no such thing as a personal style in a designer’s work. While a job is in hand, be it a lamp, a radio set, an electrical gadget, or an experimental object, his sole concern is to arrive at the solution suggested by the thing itself and its suggested use.

Bruno Munari

Perhaps too simple

I have a simple philosophy. Fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, and scratch where it itches.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Diomedes fights the gods

My first impression upon a recent a rereading of the Iliad, the first in my adulthood, is that the epic poet did not judge his heroes by the result: Heroes won and lost battles in a manner that was totally independent of their own valor; their fate depended upon totally external forces, generally the explicit agency of the scheming gods. Heroes are heroes because they are heroic in behavior, not because they won or lost.

Nassim Taleb

Portentious

I went back to the White House and talked to the President for a long time… As I was leaving, he said, making reference to Abraham Lincoln, “This is the night I should go to the theater.” I said, “If you go, I want to go with you.”

Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days

Takes place the afternoon Khrushchev accepted the offer that ended the Cuban missile crisis. By the time he wrote this, JFK had already been assassinated, so I guess RFK was aware of the grim irony of the president’s joke. In light of that, why would he have included his followup line?

The Skewness Issue

It does not matter how frequently something succeeds if failure is too costly to bear.

Nassim Taleb

Communism vs. Capitalism

The difference between capitalism and communism is that under capitalism, Man exploits Man, and under communism it is exactly the opposite.

David Levy (paraphrasing)

Accidental Power

Nothing in all the known world of politics is so intractable as a band of zealots, conscious that they are in a minority, yet armed by accident with the powers of a majority.

Samuel Morley

Books Read in 2017

Fiction (19)

The only fiction title I read that’s genuinely great is The Drawing of the Dark. The Mistborn universe is a lot of fun, though, and I emerged very impressed with Sanderson’s ability to engineer a consistent set of magical rules and then use them to the hilt in a plot that’s intricate but completely believable, at least internally.

This was my second attempt at reading The Gardens of the Moon, and while I still didn’t finish, I got far enough to count it. All it does is remind me of how much I liked The Black Company but it lacks the lived-in feeling of that superior work.

  • 100 Great Fantasy Short, Short Stories by Isaac Asimov (1987)
  • The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers (1999)
  • Walkaway: A Novel by Cory Doctorow (2017)
  • The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekov (2012)
  • To Build a Fire by Jack London (2013)
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much by G. K. Chesterton (2017)
  • Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson (2005)
  • Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (2006)
  • Universal Harvester: A Novel by John Darnielle (2017)
  • Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (2006)
  • The Quantum Thief (Jean le Flambeur) by Hannu Rajaniemi (2012)
  • Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (2012)
  • Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson (2016)
  • Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1967)
  • The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson (2012)
  • The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson (2009)
  • The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson (2009)
  • Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson (2007)
  • The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (2015)

Non-Fiction (36)

  • A Designer’s Art by Paul Rand (1985)
  • Thirteen Days by Robert F. Kennedy (1969)
  • Vacationland by John Hodgman (2017)
  • Tremendous Trifles by G. K. Chesterton (2016)
  • Viking Book of Aphorisms by W. H. Auden (1981)
  • White Working Class by Joan C. Williams (2017)
  • How the Economy Works by Roger E. A. Farmer (2014)
  • Tour de Lovecraft: The Tales by Kenneth Hite (2008)
  • Epigenetics Revolution by Carey, Nessa (2012) Paperback (1709)
  • The Brain-dead Megaphone by George Saunders (2008)
  • What became of Jane Austen? And Other Questions by Kingsley Amis (1971)
  • New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis (2012)
  • Wilson’s Night Thoughts by Edmund Wilson (1961)
  • Graphic Design: A New History by Stephen J. Eskilson (2012)
  • The Paris Review Book by The Paris Review (2003)
  • Judge This by Chip Kidd (2015)
  • Resolute by Martin W. Sandler (2008)
  • Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield (2012)
  • The Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific As Told by Selections of His Own Journals 1768-1779 by A. Grenfell Price (1949)
  • Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits by Bertrand Russell (1994)
  • Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks (2007)
  • A Commonplace Book by Alec Guiness (2002)
  • Hitchcock (Revised Edition) by François Truffaut (1985)
  • A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind by Robert A. Burton (2014)
  • The Bogleheads’ Guide to Retirement Planning by Taylor Larimore (2011)
  • The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth (2014)
  • Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing by Charles Bowden (2009)
  • The Godfather Notebook by Francis Ford Coppola (2016)
  • Everybody Behaves Badly by Lesley M. M. Blume (2016)
  • A Splendid Savage by Steve Kemper (2017)
  • The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer (2014)
  • Sweet Theft by J. D. McClatchy (2016)
  • Samuel Johnson: The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers (2008)
  • Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane (2004)
  • Atlas of Improbable Place by Travis Elborough (2016)

Rereads (4)

Not as many rereads this year as I’d have liked. The Book of Swords remains one of the great fantasy premises, but the actual story was not as great as I thought it was at age 12, reading all three books, as well as some of the follow-on series at a campsite with my dad.

My reread of Lovecraft was to fill in gaps: I skipped the ones I remembered reading in high school. The edition was Blood-Curdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre by Robert Bloch, the same one I stole from my brother’s bookshelf, though I bought this one on the Portland trip to Powell’s.

  • The Second Book of Swords by Fred Saberhagen (1991)
  • Third Book of Swords by Fred Saberhagen (1988)
  • The Best of H. P. Lovecraft by H. P. Lovecraft (1982)
  • First Book of Swords by Fred Saberhagen (1983)

 

Conscience

A psychologist once said that we know little about the conscience except that it is soluble in alcohol.

Thomas Blackburn

Responsibility

Sure, everyone remembers the monster, but they call it by his maker’s name. And the worst of what we create will outlive us.

Mike Monteiro, Design’s Lost Generation

We’ll get there someday

The sun and the moon and the stars would have disappeared long ago… had they happened to be within the reach of predatory human hands.

Havelock Ellis

How I Style React Components

I don't like putting CSS in Javascript, so I avoid it whenever I can.

It isn't ideal to avoid it entirely: sometimes you need to calculate a value for some style rule, or test some condition in order to assign the right className to an element. This is easily done with Javascript, but impossible with static CSS alone.

But JS-based solutions aren't right for me, either. The reasons I don't like them are that they stack on more complexity in order get around a simple process we already know how to perfectly well.

It also adds a lot of verticality to your javascript file. CSS rules are usually narrow and tall, with even the simplest rule requiring three lines or so. This means you either do a lot of scrolling past CSS to get to your Javascript, or you make sure to separate the styled JS into its own file, and import it properly. You should do this last part anyway, but nobody does.

After making fairly extensive use of some popular JS solutions, I settled on a process where all CSS is scoped to the component it provides style rules for. The styles are kept in a separate file, so they don't pollute your component javascript.

I use Stylus as a CSS preprocessor, because I like the absolute minimalist syntax and the consistent grammar of its built-in functions, but there is absolutely no reason you couldn't use SASS, or LESS, or any other preprocessor that supports nesting. You may use no preprocessor at all.

You don't even need to nest your styles if you don't want to, but if you don't, you will need to repeat the component class name on every line by hand.

Assuming I am working on a React component called DetailCard, my method is simply:

  1. Create a DetailCard.js file
  2. Make sure the Component's root element has className='DetailCard'
  3. Create a DetailCard.styl file
  4. Make the outermost style .DetailCard, and then nest all other styles inside it, like this:
.DetailCard
    background-color red
    h1
      font-size xx-large
      color white
    ul
      margin-top 2.4rem

.The key thing is that all styles are contained in, and scoped by, a classNamethat is tied uniquely to your component. This prevents the CSS from leaking into the global name space, at least in theory. If you have multiple components with the same name, that is a separate problem!

I'm of the opinion that trying to avoid global styles altogether is not worth the cost. It often leads to needlessly repeating the same styles over and over, because your strictly-scoped solution has kept you from reusing it. The C in CSS stands for Cascading, and you shouldn't be afraid of it.

Anyway, some CSS should be global, like reset or normalize, not to mention your site's typographical rules.

Perennials

We grow tired of everything but turning others into ridicule and congratulating ourselves on their defects.

William Hazlitt

Design work

As a rule, the experienced designer does not begin with some preconceived idea. Rather, the idea is (or should be) the result of careful observation, and the design a product of that idea. In order to solve his problem effectively the designer must necessarily go through some sort of mental process. Consciously or not, he analyzes interprets, formulates. He is aware of the technological developments in his own and kindred fields. He improvises or invents new techniques and combinations. He coordinates his material so that he may restate his problem in terms of ideas, symbols, pictures. He reinforces his symbols with appropriate accessories to achieve clarity and interest. He draws upon instinct and intuition. He considers the spectator’s feelings and predilections. Briefly, the designer experiences, perceives, analyzes, organizes, symbolizes, synthesizes.

Paul Rand

Evolution

Our minds are not quite designed to understand how the world works, but, rather, to get out of trouble rapidly and have progeny.

Nassim Taleb

Secret signs and obscure languages

“The great, terrible, important powers of the world, like social caste and religious denomination, always rest on secrets. A man is born on the wrong side of the street and can therefore never enter into certain drawing rooms, even though he be in every way superior to everyone in those drawing rooms. When you try to find out what the difference is between him and the rest, and why he is accursed, you find that the reason is a secret. It is a secret that a certain kind of straw hat is damnable. Little boys know these things about other little boys. The world is written over with mysterious tramp-language and symbols of masonic hieroglyphics.“

John Jay Chapman

What Happens at the Piteous Gate?

In The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, Severian and his traveling companions have an enigmatic and mostly off-screen encounter at Piteous Gate as they leave the city of Nessus at the end of book one.

Since book two picks up only after the encounter has concluded, we never get a direct explanation of what happens. This leaves many readers, myself included, wondering what took place there, and why Severian leaves it out.

For the record, I’m pretty convinced what Severian elides is an encounter with uhlans who were attacking people trying to leave the city. In short, after they cross the threshold of the Gate, they encounter a panicked scene where travelers are running away from the uhlans. In the fracas, Dorcas is hurt, and Severian becomes enraged, and kills some of the uhlans (and maybe some civilians as well).

He has a dream about this in chapter 1 of Claw of the Conciliator:

When I found light at last, it was the green road stretching from the shadow of the Piteous Gate. Blood gushed from Dorcas’s cheek, and though so many screamed and shouted, I could hear it pattering to the ground […] Dorcas was torn from my arms, and I drew Terminus Est to cut down those between us and found I was about to strike Master Malrubius, who stood calmly, my dog Triskele at his side, in the midst of the tumult..

This is scene is foreshadowed in chapter 13 of The Shadow of the Torturer, when  Master Palaemon is preparing to send Severian away from the guild. Master Palaemon asks:

“You know of the roads? […] I mean to warn you against them. They are patrolled by uhlans under orders to kill anyone found upon them, and since they have permission to loot the bodies of those they slay, they are not much inclined to ask excuses.”

It is also recollected in chapter 12 of Claw:

The day before, we had seen uhlans on patrol, men mounted much as we were and bearing lances like those that had killed the travelers at the Piteous Gate.

And again in chapter 1 of The Citadel of the Autarch:

At last the path joined a true road, something I had heard of often, but never trodden except in decay. It was much like the old road the uhlans had been blocking when I had become separated from Dr. Talos, Baldanders, Jolenta, and Dorcas when we left Nessus

And, lastly, in chapter 34 of Urth of the New Sun:

“They’ll be fixing dinner for us in Saltus, sieur. A good inn’s there.”

I answered, “I know,” thinking as I did how Jonas and I had walked therethrough the forest after the uhlans had scattered our party at the PiteousGate, of finding the wine in our ewer, and many other things.

None of this bullet proof evidence, but taken together I think it amounts to a fairly tenable position.

What was left out of the end of book one is not lost, but rather is scattered throughout the narrative, as though Severian could only conceal it from us, not get rid of it altogether.

Or, that Severian writes from the perspective of someone with perfect memory, and so does not consider the difficulty of tracking so many questions beyond the horizon. When the answers finally appear, we don’t even remember we were looking for them, so we usually don’t pay attention. Our eyes keep moving, looking for whatever is related to the present moment, unconcerned with the distant past. 

And then there is the old Wolfe trick of hiding things in plain sight, where we are least likely to see them. I don’t know how many times my eyes have passed over those five separate, clearly-stated explanations for what I would once have called a real enigma.

This is a common variety of puzzle in The Book of the New Sun: Severian edits his narrative to distract from the parts he’s not proud of, but leaves in enough for us to infer what actually happened. I’ve suspected that all the riddles in this book are solvable, and I would guess that, like this one, most are a matter of reading the books more attentively than we are usually capable of.

The educated horseman

Though he got no pleasure from pursuing the fox, he also rode to the hounds in a manly fashion that combined both energy and his habitual sloth. Sir John Hawkins wrote, “he showed himself a bold rider, for he either leaped, or broke through, many of the hedges that obstructed him. This he did, not because he was eager in the pursuit, but, as he said, to save the trouble of alighting and remounting.” … He was greatly pleased when his horsemanship… was praised by an expert, who remarked that he had brawn as well as brains: “Why Johnson rides as well, for aught I see, as the most illiterate fellow in England.”

Jeffrey Meyers, Samuel Johnson: The Struggle

Priorities

The causes of events are always more important than the events themselves

Cicero

The fourth dimension

“Only our concept of time makes it possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session.”

Kafka

Surprise or Suspense

There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

Alfred Hitchcock

Land of the Birds

Free from terrestrial mammalian competition and predatory threat, birds occupied or dominated all major niches in the New Zealand animal ecology because there were no threats posed to their eggs and chicks by small terrestrial animals. Moa were grazers, functionally similar to deer or cattle in other habitats, and Haast’s eagles were the hunters who filled the same niche as top-niche mammalian predators, such as tigers or lions.

A Wikipedian

Weather

I do not know if other people are made like me in this matter; but to me it is always dreary weather, what may be called useless weather, that slings into life a sense of action and romance. On bright blue days I do not want anything to happen; the world is complete and beautiful, a thing for contemplation. I no more ask for adventures under that turquoise dome than I ask for adventures in church. But when the background of man’s life is a grey background, then, in the name of man’s sacred supremacy, I desire to paint on it in fire and gore. When the heavens fail man refuses to fail; when the sky seems to have written on it, in letters of lead and pale silver, the decree that nothing shall happen, then the immortal soul, the prince of the creatures, rises up and decrees that something shall happen, if it be only the slaughter of a policeman.

Chesterton, The Secret of a Train

Copy editing

“The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious. The smallest link was let drop by the artificers of the Mediterranean, and the lion of ancestral pessimism burst his chain in the forgotten forests of the north… Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.”

Chesterton

Just try to imagine the dire consequences of an unintentionally ambiguous or misworded doctrine.

Bonhomie

A slight touch of friendly malice and amusement towards those we love keeps our affection for them, I find, from becoming flat.

Logan Pearsall Smith

Landscapes

But though I could not with a crayon get the best out of the landscape, it does not follow that the landscape was not getting the best out of me. And this, I think, is the mistake that people make about the old poets who lived before Wordsworth, and were supposed not to care very much about Nature because they did not describe it much.

They preferred writing about great men to writing about great hills; but they sat on the great hills to write it. They gave out much less about Nature, but they drank in, perhaps, much more. They painted the white robes of their holy virgins with the blinding snow, at which they had stared all day. They blazoned the shields of their paladins with the purple and hold of many heraldic sunsets. The greenness of a thousand green leaves clustered into the live green figure of Robin Hood. The blueness of a score of forgotten skies became the blue robes of the Virgin. The inspiration went in like sunbeams and came out like Apollo.

Chesterton, A Piece of Chalk

Dialectic and Oratory

When Socrates spoke, the people said how inspiring, but when Demosthenes spoke, the people said let us march.

Adlai Stevenson

Rediscovery

I think transhumanism is a warmed-over Christian heresy. While its adherents tend to be vehement atheists, they can’t quite escape from the history that gave rise to our current western civilization. Many of you are familiar with design patterns, an approach to software engineering that focuses on abstraction and simplification in order to promote reusable code. When you look at the AI singularity as a narrative, and identify the numerous places in the story where the phrase “… and then a miracle happens” occurs, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that they’ve reinvented Christianity.

Charles Stross

Sympathy

Winston Churchill was once referred to as a pillar of the Church. ‘No, no,’ he replied, ‘not a pillar of the Church but a buttress, supporting it from the outside.

Quoted by John G. Murray

Alienation

Many a man has a bonfire in his heart and nobody comes to warm himself at it. 

Van Gogh

Optimizing for Interest

Organize at least some significant portion of your knowledge of the world in terms of place, whether by country, region, or city. If you do that, virtually every person will be interesting to you, if only because almost everyone has some valuable knowledge of particular places.

Tyler Cowen, from his somewhat tongue-in-cheek post 12 Rules for Life at Marginal Revolution.

Amnesia

“Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect… In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

Michael Crichton

Design work

Because graphic design, in the end deals with the spectator, and because it is the goal of the designer to be persuasive or at least informative, it follows that the designer’s problems are twofold: to anticipate the spectators reactions and to meet his own aesthetic needs. He must therefore discover a means of communication between himself and the spectator (a condition with which the easel painter need not concern himself). The problem is not simple; its very complexity virtually dictates the solution — that is, the discovery of an image universally comprehensible, one that translates abstract ideas into concrete forms.

Paul Rand

Cowen’s First Law

Cowen’s First Law: There is something wrong with everything (by which I mean there are few decisive or knockdown articles or arguments, and furthermore until you have found the major flaws in an argument, you do not understand it).

Tyler Cowen

This has been a principle of mine for 15 or 20 years, but I didn’t know it had been coined, or that anybody else really held it as important. Another reason to like Tyler Cowen.

The tools at hand

“Language… though a useful and even indispensible tool, is a dangerous one, since it begins by suggesting a definiteness, discreteness, and quasi-permanence in objects which physics seems to show they do not possess. The philosopher, therefore, is faced with the difficult task of using language to undo the false beliefs that it suggests.”

Bertrand Russell

“It may be that singing began as an incident in courtship, and that its biological purpose was to promote sexual intercourse; but this fact (if it be a fact) will not help a composer to produce good music. Language is useful when you wish to order a meal in a restaurant, but this fact, similarly, is of no importance to the pure mathematician.

Bertrand Russell

Worldliness, Deconstruction

“Whatever the word ‘secular’ is made to signify in current usage, historically it cannot be equated with worldliness. Modern man, when he lost the certainty of a world to come, was thrown back upon himself and not upon this world; far from believing that the world might be potentially immortal, he was not even sure that it was real.

Hannah Arendt

Force, displacement

Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.

Bertrand Russell

Russell couldn’t have predicted the emergence of a third type of work: instructing matter on how to influence the movement of electrons.

Conscience

With some trepidation, I argued that, whatever validity the military and political arguments were for an attack in preference to a blockade, America’s traditions and history would not permit such a course of action. Whatever military reasons [Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson] and others could marshal, they were nevertheless, in the last analysis, advocating a surprise attack by a very large nation against a very small one. This, I said, could not be undertaken by the U.S. if we were to maintain our moral position at home and around the globe… We spent more time on this moral question during the first five days than on any other single matter… We struggled and fought with one another and with our consciences, for it was a question that deeply troubled us all.

Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days

I’m not sure what to make of this. Did JFK and his Ex. Comm. actually debate the morality of invading Cuba, rather than just the danger of reprisal, and did they spend five days wondering whether doing so would be a betrayal of American ideals?

This seems inconceivable in light of how every president in my lifetime appears to make decisions. I try and fail to imagine presidents 40-44 hotly debating the necessity of the moral high ground, while around them gathers an existential military crisis.

I could see it getting an eye roll in the war room, but it’s even easier to think of it never occurring to anybody present.

Even the act of lying about it in a memoir seems like an inadvisable risk; the optics would be terrible.

Windbreaks

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.

Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons

Imagination and memory

To sleep is to turn one’s mind from the world; Funes, lying on his back on his cot in the shadows, could imagine every crevice and every molding in the sharply defined houses surrounding him. (I repeat that the least important of his memories were more minute and more vivid than our perception of physical pleasure or physical torment) Towards the east, along a stretch not yet divided into blocks, there were new houses, unknown to Funes. He imagined them to be black, compact, made of homogeneous darkness; in that direction he would turn his face in order to sleep. He would also imagine himself at the bottom of the river, rocked and annihilated by the current.

Jorge Borges

The Zürau Aphorisms

My favorites:

Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry; this occurs repeatedly, again and again: finally it can be reckoned upon beforehand and becomes part of the ceremony.

— Kafka, Aphorism 17

It is conceivable that Alexander the Great, in spite of the martial successes of his early days, in spite of the excellent army that he had trained, in spite of the power he felt within him to change the world, might have remained standing on the bank of the Hellespont and never have crossed it, and not out of fear, not from infirmity of will, but because of the mere weight of his own body.

— Aphorism 36

We were fashioned to live in Paradise, and Paradise was destined to serve us. Our destiny has been altered; that this has also happened with the destiny of Paradise is not stated.

— Aphorism 80

Behind everything

Eyes then are compacted power; they are an index of vision; they see and refer us to greater seeing. Nor has the stomach a less noble office. It digests food; that is, in its own particular method, it deals with the nourishment offered by the universe. It is the physical formula of that health which destroys certain elements — the bacteria which harmfully approach us. By it we learn to consume; by it therefore to be, in turn, consumed. So even with those poor despised things, the buttocks. There is no seated figure, no image of any seated figure, which does not rely on them for its strength and balance. They are at the bottom of the sober dignity of judges; the grace of a throned woman; the hierarchical session of the Pope himself reposes on them.

— Charles Williams

The literary genre

“What we now normally consider the mainstream—so called realistic fiction—is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. When I look back at the foundations of literature, I see literary figures who, if they were alive today, would probably be members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Homer? He would certain belong to the SFWA. So would Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare. That tradition is literature’s mainstream, and it has been what has grown out of that tradition which has been labeled SF or whatever label you want to use”

— Gene Wolfe

Not a new idea, but an authoritative source.

From this interview.

Two ships crashing in the night

I see now that when we met, my writing, like hers, left its old path and started to circle and search. To me, of course, she was not only herself: she was America and American literature in person. I don’t know what I was to her. Apart from the more monumental classics — Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and so on — my background reading was utterly different from hers. But our minds soon became two parts of one operation. We dreamed a lot of shared or complementary dreams. Our telepathy was intrusive.

— Ted Hughes

Truer words

In language, the ignorant have prescribed laws to the learned.

— Richard Duppa

Epiphany

There was a movie writer who always seemed to have his best ideas in the middle of the night, and when he woke up in the morning, he never remembered them. So one day the man had a brilliant idea. He said to himself, “I’ll put a paper and pencil beside my bed, and when I get the idea, I’ll write it down.” So he went to bed and, sure enough, in the middle of the night he awoke with a terrific idea. He wrote it down and went back to sleep. When he awoke, the next morning, he’d forgotten the whole thing, but all of a sudden, as he was shaving, he thought to himself, “Oh God, I had a terrific idea again last night, and now I’ve forgotten it. But wait, I had my paper and pencil; that’s right, I wrote it down!” So he rushed into the bedroom and picked up the note and read what he’d written: “Boy meets girl.”

— Alfred Hitchcock

Pessimism

In the small hours when the acrid stench of existence rises like sewer gas from everything created, the emptiness of life seems more terrible than its misery.

— Cyril Connolly

Connolly was a child prodigy, an early rival of George Orwell, who also said that it is “[b]etter to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.” His most remembered writing explores why he himself was not more successful as a writer.

An honest eulogy

E. F. Benson never lived his life at all; only stayed with it and lunched with it.

— A. C. Benson

Context

We think we know a man or a woman, when so much of what we know is actually that man’s or that woman’s situation, his or her place on the board of life. Move the pawn to the last row and see her rise in armor, sword in hand.

— Gene Wolfe

Refinement

She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot.

— Twain

A Definition of Science Fiction

Science Fiction is that class of prose narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesised on the basis of some innovation in science or technology, or pseudo-science or pseudo-technology, whether human or extra-terrestrial in origin.

— Kingsley Amis

Then, later

… science fiction presents with verisimilitude the human effects of spectacular changes in our environment, changes either deliberately willed or involuntarily suffered.

The business about Xi space and its effects in our universe occupies the position given in ordinary fiction to matters of human situation or character; in this sense it is the hero of the story. Ideas as hero is the basis of a great deal of science fiction, corresponding to what Edmund Crispin in another of his incarnations has called the plot as hero type of detective story, that traditional category in which the circumstances of the crime determine the process of its explanation and thus furnish the entire structure of the narrative. The primacy of idea means that a good science fiction story of this kind will sound good in paraphrase, and in this direction lies some support to the plea that stylistic adequacy is all one need demand from examples of the idea-category, which is not a vehicle for the verbal imagination. I might broaden the notion of idea as hero by pointing out that an idea of scientific interest, or even of scientific respectability, is no requirement, provided as always that conceivability is not outraged.

— Kingsley Amis

I like to collect definitions of SF.

Movable Type

Once I could be parachuted blindfold anywhere in the world, take the blindfold off and look around, and I could see the shop facias and newspapers, and I would know where I was just from the typeface. I’d see the type of Roger Excoffon and know that I had landed in France. But now a typeface is released in Tokyo or Berlin or London and it’s gone around the world overnight, and it has completely lost its sense of origin.

— Matthew Carter

An unexpected side effect. The Nazis standardized type faces in countries they’d conquered. To increase readability (and compliance) in occupied populations, they eschewed the traditional Gothic fonts associated with old Germany, in favor of Roman-style type. Even after they lost the war, this standardization persisted throughout Europe, effectively eliminating identifiable, regional type varieties. Eventually, modern Swiss typefaces like Helvetica and Univers spread around the world, robbing Carter of his ability to pinpoint nationality with type design. (see Just My Type by Simon Garfield)

Usefulness

Poetry is not magic. In so far as poetry, or any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.

Catharsis is properly effected, not by works of art, but by religious rites. It is also effected, usually improperly, by bull-fights, professional football matches, bad movies, military bands and monster rallies at which ten thousand girl guides form themselves into a model of the national flag.

The condition of mankind is, and has always been, so miserable and depraved that, if anyone were to say to the poet: “For God’s sake stop singing and do something useful like putting on the kettle or fetching bandages,” what just reason could he give for refusing? But nobody says this. The self-appointed unqualified nurse says: “You are to sing the patient a song which will make him believe that I, and I alone, can cure him. If you can’t or won’t, I shall confiscate your passport and send you to the mines.” And the poor patient in his delirium cries: “Please sing me a song which will give me sweet dreams instead of nightmares. If you succeed, I will give you a penthouse in New York or a ranch in Arizona.”

— Auden

The new order

TROFIMOV.
The human race progresses, perfecting its powers. Everything that is unattainable now will some day be near at hand and comprehensible, but we must work, we must help with all our strength those who seek to know what fate will bring. Meanwhile in Russia only a very few of us work. The vast majority of those intellectuals whom I know seek for nothing, do nothing, and are at present incapable of hard work. They call themselves intellectuals, but they use “thou” and “thee” to their servants, they treat the peasants like animals, they learn badly, they read nothing seriously, they do absolutely nothing, about science they only talk, about art they understand little. They are all serious, they all have severe faces, they all talk about important things. They philosophize, and at the same time, the vast majority of us, ninety-nine out of a hundred, live like savages, fighting and cursing at the slightest opportunity, eating filthily, sleeping in the dirt, in stuffiness, with fleas, stinks, smells, moral filth, and so on. . . And it’s obvious that all our nice talk is only carried on to distract ourselves and others. Tell me, where are those créches we hear so much of? and where are those reading-rooms? People only write novels about them; they don’t really exist. Only dirt, vulgarity, and Asiatic plagues really exist. . . . I’m afraid, and I don’t at all like serious faces; I don’t like serious conversations. Let’s be quiet sooner.

LOPAKHIN.
You know, I get up at five every morning, I work from morning till evening, I am always dealing with money — my own and other people’s — and I see what people are like. You’ve only got to begin to do anything to find out how few honest, honourable people there are. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I think: “Oh Lord, you’ve given us huge forests, infinite fields, and endless horizons, and we, living here, ought really to be giants.”

LUBOV.
You want giants, do you ? . . . They’re only good in stories, and even there they frighten one

— Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard

Essentially, the three views of economic history in the play get summarized in this one section.

Tempus fugit

“What, then, is time? If no one asks of me, I know: if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”

— St. Augustine

Home sweet home

If ever the last 50,000 years of man’s existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately sixty-two years each, there have been about 800 lifetimes. Of these 800 at least 650 were spent in caves.

— Hans Kung

In abstract

One settles down to read or re-read Verne with an eagerness based on ruminating about him, rather than on any notion of what he is actually like to read. He displays that curious property — shared perhaps with Dickens? — of making his effect not so much when the book is open as after it is shut and put away, so that each novel starts to improve in retrospect the moment one starts to forget it.

Kingsley Amis

Grief as a pedestal

On the fourteenth of February, I received a telegram from Buenos Aires saying I should return immediately, because my father was ‘in no way well.’ God forgive me, but the prestige of being the recipient of an urgent telegram, the desire to communicate to all of Fray Bentos the contradiction between the negative form of the message and the positive adverb, the temptation to dramatize my sorrow as I feigned a virile stoicism, all no doubt distracted me from all possibility of anguish.

Jorge Borges

Borges’ stories tend to be sterile conjectures about mathematics, gnosticism, etc, and often read like essays. Only the puzzle matters: Apart from revealing his philosophical interests, Borges himself always remains an enigma. In the middle of Funes the Memorious he drops a revealing half-paragraph feels completely human, probably even autobiographical.

The Contemporary Kafka

One of the most interesting sections of Chuck Klosterman’s book But What if We’re Wrong concerns the difficulty of predicting from what quarter the next alienated, genius will seem to suddenly appear, even though they’ve been around (and overlooked) for years. What does obscurity mean in the age of the internet?

We won’t have to go back and reinsert marginalized writers who were ignored by the establishment, because the establishment is now a multisphere collective; those marginalized writers will be recognized as they emerge, and their marginalized status will serve as a canonical advantage.

So what does that tell us about the Contemporary Kafka?

It tells us that Contemporary Kafka will need to be a person so profoundly marginalized that almost no one currently views his or her marginalization as a viable talking point.

Klosterman then asks what it means to actually be in a marginalized group. If we, the book-buying public, know about an under-represented community, how obscure can it really be?  A group may be highly marginalized, yet still be quite visible.

For example, if tomorrow’s writer of genius were toiling away in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro today, he or she would face many obstacles to fame, but would still find a receptive audience of some size. A lot of people might even seek out a book written by a writer from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, since, hey, that’s a pretty unique perspective!

But that’s not marginalized enough.

In order for there to be a Contemporary Kafka, there must exist some cohort which is so disdained, so overlooked, so far on the edge of society that a genius could still languish there in the 21st century. Their work would need to be actively ignored.

The uncomfortable, omnipresent reality within any conversation about representation is that the most underrepresented subcultures are the ones that don’t even enter into the conversation. They are, by definition, impossible to quantify. They are groups of people whom — right now, in the present tense — it is still acceptable to dislike or discount or ignore. They are groups who are not seen as needing protection or support, which makes them vulnerable to ridicule and attack. Who are they? As already stated in this paragraph, I am in no position to say. If I try, I can only be wrong. Any argument in their favor is an argument against my premise.

Still, the history of ideas tells us that there are many collections of current humans we do not currently humanize. They exist. So find them right now, inside your own head: Imagine a certain kind of person or a political faction or a religious sect or a sexual orientation or a social group you have no ethical problem disliking, to the point where you could safely ridicule it in public without fear of censure.

Whatever you imagined is the potential identity of the Contemporary Kafka. And if your fabricated answer seems especially improbable, it just means you might actually be close.

An Itinerary for Tourists

“Santa Marta, where Simón Bolívar died penniless in a borrowed shirt, is the oldest town in Colombia. In the past few years it has become a resort, but the expensive hotels are outside town, away from the bars and pool halls. The town makes strenuous claims to being Bolivar’s shrine, and like every other town of size in latin America it has an impressive statue of the liberator. There is a corrosive irony in this Bolívar-worship, but it is quite in key with the other misapprehensions on the continent. Bolívar came to Santa Marta because he was in danger of being assassinated in Bogota. He was regarded as a dictator in Peru, a traitor in Colombia, and in Venezuela — his birthplace — he was declared an outlaw. For setting Latin America free, his reward was penury and vilification. The monuments are an afterthought, and the words chiseled onto them are the battle cries he uttered when the revolution seemed a success. Which town council could raise a subscription to engrave his last judgments on any of these marmoreal plinths? ‘America is ungovernable,’ he wrote to Flores. ‘Those who serve the revolution plough the sea. The only thing to do in America is to emigrate.’

— Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express

Brushes with greatness

“When the Ideal is manifested in the work-a-day world, it does not put to shame the creatures of a day — it brings them nearer to itself. Thus, when Homer causes Pedasus, a mortal thorough-bread, to be put in as an outrigger with the divine horses of Achilles, he is careful to tell us that Pedasus, though he ‘was only an ordinary horse’, kept up with the immortal pair.”

— E. V. Rieu

Hom. Il. 16.151-154:
“In the side traces he set the noble horse Pedasus, whom Achilles had brought away with him when he sacked the city of Eetion, and who, mortal steed though he was, could take his place along with those that were immortal.”

Literary Taste

I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet gone ourselves.

— E.M. Forster

Technique

When I was a young, enthusiastic theatre-goer, but before becoming a professional actor, I often heard poeple — members of audiences or people who pretended to theatrical judgement or sophistication — say of some actress or other, ‘I so admire her technique.’ I never knew what they were talking about, which shamed me.

I still don’t know. When I watch, say Maggie Smith, I have no awareness of any ‘technical’ accomplishment, no perception of any wheels which may be going round; what she does just seems to me mesmeric and true. If the ‘technique’ or mechanics show, then there must be something wrong.

— Alec Guinness

The vein of woe

‘Tis not the time, ’tis not the sophists vex him;
There is some root of suffering in himself,
Some secret and unfollow’d vein of woe,
Which makes the time look black and sad to him.

— Matthew Arnold, ‘Empedocles on Etna’

Occasional capitulation

A man may be in as just possession of truth as of a city, and yet be forced to surrender.

— Sir Thomas Browne

This Idea is Free

You know, I have an idea for a really good Cold War suspense movie. An American, speaking Russian fluently, is parachuted into Russia, and the little man who looks after him on the plane accidentally falls through the opening, so that the two men come down to gether on the one parachute. The first one not only speaks fluent Russian; he also has the necessary papers and could be taken for a Russian citizen, while the little man with him has no papers and doesn’t speak a word of Russian. This is the point of departure from the story. Every second would be suspenseful.

— Alfred Hitchcock

Proof of Work

Coders call one another liars, when all they really mean is that they disagree about how software should work. During the time I was working with Wright in secret, I would text my colleague John Lanchester, who I knew I could trust to keep the secret but also to understand what was at stake in the story. ‘Imagine a situation,’ I wrote to John, ‘where novelists were strangely invested in denying the plausibility of each other’s books. There’s no “proof” as such that one is right and the other is wrong, but they could argue fiercely and accuse each other of all sorts of things while not really settling the problem.’

‘Edmund Wilson says somewhere that the reason poets dislike each other’s books is because they seem wrong, false – a kind of lie,’ John replied. ‘If you were telling the truth you would be writing the same poems as me.’

— Andrew O’Hagan in The Satoshi Affair

Trying to track down the source of that Edmund Wilson paraphrasing.

Sudden comprehension and its attendant terror

                                      How blest am I
In my just censure, in my true opinion!
Alack, for lesser knowledge! How accurs’d
In being so blest! There may be in the cup
A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected; but if one present
The aborr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider.

— Shakespeare, A Winter’s Tale

Colonialism

“I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to ipress the “native,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing — no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s struggle in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”

— George Orwell, Shooting an Elephant

The Critic’s Temptation

Hitchcock:Some magazines deliberately select critics who don’t care about films, but are able to write about them in a condescending way that will amuse the readers. There’s an American expression; when something’s no good, they say, “It’s for the birds!” So I pretty much knew what to expect when The Birds opened….

I was in London during the Second World War when a picture by John Van Druten opened. It was called Old Acquaintance, and it co-starred Bette Davis and Claude Rains. The critics of two London Sunday papers both used the same tag line at the end of their reviews. What do you think it was? “Auld acquaintances should be forgot.” In other words, even if the picture had been good, they just couldn’t resist that line.

Truffaut: Well, in France they do the same whenever a film title ends with the word “nuit.” Les Portes de la Nuit is automatically labeled Les Portes de l’Ennui, and Marguerite de la Nuit is invariably referred to as Marguerite de l”Ennui. Even if the picture is fascinating, there are bound to be puns around the word “ennui“.

The lights of civilization

Jessie Benton Frémont, wife of John Charles Frémont the explorer, late in their life together, wrote of his fostering settlements in the West: “All your campfires have become cities”.

— J.D. McClatchy, Sweet Theft

Better than the opposite.

Vita Longa

The story is told — I think of Brahms — that the master was made to listen to a new score by a young composer. As he did, he kept raising his hat. The young man asked him why. “I’m just saying hello to old friends,” he replied.

— J.D. McClatchy, Sweet Theft

Cyclomatic Complexity

The 2015 direct-to-video film The Scorpion King 4: Quest for Power is the sequel to the sequel to the prequel to the prequel to the sequel to the remake of Universal’s original 1932 The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff.

— Greg Ross

To matter forever

Do you unconsciously believe that Shakespeare was an objectively better playwright than his two main rivals, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson? If so, have no fear—as far as the world is concerned, he was. If you want to prove that he was, all you need to do is go through the texts of their respective plays and find the passages that validate the opinion most of the world already accepts. It will not be difficult, and it will feel like the differences you locate are a manifestation of merit. But you will actually be enforcing a tautology: Shakespeare is better than Marlowe and Jonson because Shakespeare is more like Shakespeare, which is how we delineate greatness within playwriting. All three men were talented. All three had enough merit to become the historical equivalent of Shakespearean, had history unspooled differently. But it didn’t. It unspooled the way we understand it, and Shakespeare had almost nothing to do with that. He is remembered in a way that Marlowe and Jonson are not, particularly by those who haven’t really thought about any of these guys, ever.

To matter forever, you need to matter to those who don’t care. And if that strikes you as sad, be sad.

— Chuck Klosterman

Practical constraints on speech

There are surely many things a man may hold, which at the same time he may feel that he has no right to say publicly, and which it may annoy him that he has said publicly. The law recognizes this principle. In our own time, men have been imprisoned and fined for saying true things of a bad king. The maxim has been held, that, “The greater the truth, the greater is the libel.” And so as to the judgment of society, a just indignation would be felt against a writer who brought forward wantonly the weaknesses of a great man, though the whole world knew that they existed. No one is at liberty to speak ill of another without a justifiable reason, even though he knows he is speaking truth, and the public knows it too.

— Cardinal Newman

Presumption

Electricity is of two kinds, positive and negative. The difference is, I presume, that one comes a little more expensive, but is more durable; the other is a cheaper thing, but the moths get into it.

— Stephen Leacock

Hendiadys

In Shakespeare’s early works hendiadys barely appears. Maybe popping up once or twice a play. Then, in about 1599, Shakespeare appears to have had a a moment and a revelation. He suddenly decided that hendiadys was his favourite form. You can draw a graph of the frequency and watch it leap up, peak, plateau, and drop away in what’s usually called his late (and not great) period. Now, I’m not arguing that hendiadys was the only thing that made those five tragedies great, but it’s worth noting that that’s when he used the rhetorical form. Hamlet is the top play, where he averages a hendiadys every 60 or so lines.

Hendiadys is “the substitution of a conjunction for a subordination”, or in other words, instead of saying “full of furious sound, signifying nothing,” you say “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The five tragedies are Hamlet, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and King Lear.

Pretense

Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those we cannot resemble.

— Dr. Johnson

Weal and woe

I should fear those that dance before me now
Would one day stamp upon me. It has been done:
Men shut their doors against a setting sun.

— Shakespeare, Timon of Athens

Standard input

One of my favorite business model suggestions for entrepreneurs is, find an old UNIX command that hasn’t yet been implemented on the web, and fix that. talk and finger became ICQ, LISTSERV became Yahoo! Groups, ls became (the original) Yahoo!, find and grep became Google, rn became Bloglines, pine became Gmail, mount is becoming S3, and bash is becoming Yahoo! Pipes. I didn’t get until tonight that Twitter is wall for the web. I love that.

— Marc Hedlund

The Parable of the Clothes Line

A story might be told by a series of sketches of the clothes of a given family hanging out to dry. A love story might be told in the washes hung out in adjacent gardens. Then there should be three washes and a gentleman nightshirt and a lady nightshirt should be alone. By and by there should be some little nightshirts.

A philosopher might be tempted, on seeing the little nightshirt, to think that the old nightshirts had made it. What we do is much the same, for the body of a baby is not much more made by the two old babies, after whose pattern it has cut itself out, than the little nightshirt is made by the old ones. The thing that makes either the little nightshirts or the little babies is something about which we know nothing whatever at all.

— Samuel Butler’s Notebook

Education

Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.

— E.M. Forster

Means and Ends

The practical revolutionary will understand Goethe’s “conscience is the virtue of observers and not of agents of action”; in action, one does not always enjoy the luxury of a decision that is consistent both with one’s individual conscience and the good of mankind. The choice must always be for the latter. Action is for mass salvation and not for the individual’s personal salvation. He who sacrifices the mass good for his personal conscience has a peculiar conception of “personal salvation”; he doesn’t care enough for people to be “corrupted” for them.

— Saul Alinsky

Plus ça change

“How strange is this wild urge for rapid locomotion seizing people of all nations at the same instant. ‘The dead go swiftly’, says the ballad. Are we dead then? Or could this be some presentiment of the approaching doom of our planet, possessing us to multiply the means of communication so we may travel over its entire surface in the little time left to us?”

— Théophile Gautier, 1884

Books Read in 2016

The value in posting this list is not only that it preserves the work it took to compile it, but also that it provides me with some hint as the sources I took this year’s passages from.

Fiction

  • Home Fires by Wolfe, Gene
  • The Forever War by Haldeman, Joe
  • Far North by Theroux, Marcel
  • The Last Wish by Sapkowski, Andrzej
  • The Dark Forest by Liu, Cixin
  • The Killing Machine by Vance, Jack
  • Star King by Vance, Jack
  • Castle of the Otter by Wolfe, Gene
  • The Lions of al-Rassan by Kay, Guy Gavriel
  • The Weird by VanderMeer, Jeff
  • Rendezous with Rama by Clarke, Arthur C.

Non-Fiction

  • The Art of Philosophizing and other Essays by Russell, Bertrand
  • But What if We’re Wrong? by Klosterman, Chuck
  • Man-Eaters of Kumaon by Corbett, Jim
  • Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects by Stevens, Wallace
  • The Note-Books of Samuel Butler by Butler, Samuel
  • The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays by Auden, W. H.
  • The Old Patagonian Express by Theroux, Paul
  • Too High and Too Steep by Williams, David B
  • In Defense of Sanity by Chesterton, G. K.
  • Commonplace Book by Forster, E. M.
  • Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail by Roosevelt, Theodore
  • By Design by Caplan, Ralph
  • Interaction of Color by Albers, Josef
  • Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down by Gordon, J. E.
  • Atlas of Cursed Places by Le Carrer, Olivier
  • The Inevitable by Kelly, Kevin
  • Wind, Sand, and Stars by Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de
  • Code by Petzold, Charles
  • Rats by Sullivan, Robert
  • Cradle to Cradle by Braungart, Michael
  • A Certain World by Auden, W. H.
  • Atlas of Remote Islands by Schalansky, Judith
  • Wayfinding by Arthur, Paul
  • A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Manaugh, Geoff
  • The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell by Russell, Bertrand
  • On Bullshit by Frankfurt, Harry G.
  • Consilience by Wilson Edward Osborne
  • Interdisciplinary Interaction Design by Pannafino, James
  • The Food Lab by López-Alt, J. Kenji
  • Architecture: Form, Space, and Order by Ching, Francis D. K.
  • Nothing to Envy by Demick, Barbara
  • Trillion Year Spree by Aldiss, Brian W, editor.
  • The Big Con by Maurer, David
  • 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People by Weinschenk, Susan
  • At Ease by Eisenhower, Dwight D.
  • Playing at the World by Peterson, Jon
  • The Progress Paradox by Easterbrook, Gregg
  • Too Big to Know by Weinberger, David
  • The Knowledge by Dartnell, Lewis
  • Data and Goliath by Schneier, Bruce
  • Cubed by Saval, Nikil
  • Good-Bye to All That by Graves, Robert
  • Gunfighter Nation by Slotkin, Richard
  • Symbol by Bateman, Steven
  • A Time of Gifts by Fermor, Patrick Leigh
  • Steering the Craft by Le Guin, Ursula K.
  • How to Lie with Maps by Monmonier, Mark
  • Uncanny Valley by Weschler, Lawrence
  • Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design by Bierut, Michael

Rereads

  • 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories by Asimov, Isaac

Ken and Robin’s Spy Movies 101

From Episode 227 of Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff.

Robin D. Laws

  • Spione (1928)
  • The Parallax View (1974) ✓
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) ✓
  • Notorious (1936) ✓
  • The Third Man (1949) ✓
    • Ken: “You know what’s another good movie with no spies in it? Jaws.”
  • From Russia with Love (1963) ✓
  • Army of Shadows (1969) ✓
  • Ronin (1998) ✓
  • Sicario (2015) ✓
  • Charade (1963)
  • Hopscotch (1980)

Kenneth Hite

  • The Three Days of the Condor (1975) ✓
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) ✓
    • “Since you can’t allow TV shows in Spy Movies 101, we must pass over Alec Guiness with a wistful sigh.”
  • The 39 Steps (1935)
  • The Manchurian Candidate (1962) ✓
  • Thunderball (1965) ✓
  • The Ipcress File (1965) ✓
  • The Bourne Trilogy (2000s) ✓
  • OSS-117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) ✓

Art Note, the Old Masters and their Pupils

“The old masters taught, not because they liked teaching, nor yet from any idea of serving the cause of art, nor yet because they were paid to teach by the parents of their pupils. The parents probably paid no money at first. They took pupils and taught them because they had more work to do than they could get through, and they wanted someone to help them. They sold the pupil’s work as their own, just as people do now who take apprentices. When people can sell a pupil’s work they will teach the pupil all they know, and they will see he does it. This is the secret of the whole matter.”

— Samuel Butler’s Notebook

The Thundering Heard

Hitchcock: Well, the silent pictures were the purest form of cinema; the only thing they lacked was the sound of people talking and the noises. But this slight imperfection did not warrant the major changes that sound brought in. In other words, since all that was missing was simply natural sound, there was no need to go to the other extreme and completely abandon the technique of the pure motion picture, the way they did when sound came in.

Truffaut: I agree. In the final era of silent movies, the great film-makers — in fact, almost the whole of production — had reached something near perfection. The introduction of sound, in a way, jeopardized that perfection. I mean that this was precisely the time when the high screen standards of so many brilliant directors showed up the woeful inadequacy of the others, and the lesser talents were gradually being eliminated from the field. In this sense one might say that mediocrity came back into its own with the advent of sound.

Brevity

Talking with Gogin last night, I said that in writing it took more time and trouble to get a thing short than long. He said it was the same in painting. It was harder not to paint a detail than to paint it — easier to put in all that one can see than to judge what may go without saying, omit it and range the irreducible minima in due order of precedence. Hence we all lean towards prolixity.

The difficiulty lies in the nice appreciation of relative importances and in the giving each detail neither more nor less than its due […] We are continually trying to see as much as we can, and to put it down. More wisely we should consider how much we can avoid seeing and dispense with.

As regards painting, anyone can paint anything in the minute manner with a little practice, but it takes an exceedingly able man to paint so much as an egg broadly and simply. Bearing in mind the shortness of life and the complexity of affairs, it stands to reason that we owe most to him who packs our trunk for us, so to speak, most intelligently, neither omitting what we are likely to want, nor including what we can dispense with, and, at the same time, arranges things so that they will travel most safely and be got at most conveniently. So we speak of composition and arrangement in all arts.

— Samuel Butler’s Notebook

False Premises

Deduction tells you what follows from your premises, but does not tell you whether your premises are true… It can, however, enable you to know that your premises are false. It may happen that the consequences of your premises can be disproved, and in that case your premises must be more or less wrong. Bishop Colenso, in his endeavor to convert the Zulus, translated the Bible into their language. They read it with an open mind, but when they came to the statement that the hare chews the cud they informed him that this was not the case. He was a bookish man, unfamiliar with the habits of hares, but at the instigation of the Zulus he observed a hare and found they were right. This caused him to have ‘doubts,’ which led the authorities to deprive him of his salary.

— Bertrand Russell

The Great Filter

Consider the implications of discovering that life had evolved independently on Mars (or some other planet in our solar system).  That discovery would suggest that the emergence of life is not a very improbable event.  If it happened independently twice here in our own back yard, it must surely have happened millions times across the galaxy.  This would mean that the Great Filter is less likely to occur in the early life of planets and is therefore more likely still to come.

If we discovered some very simple life forms on Mars in its soil or under the ice at the polar caps, it would show that the Great Filter must exist somewhere after that period in evolution.  This would be disturbing, but we might still hope that the Great Filter was located in our past.  If we discovered a more advanced life‐form, such as some kind of
multi‐cellular organism, that would eliminate a much larger stretch of potential locations where the Great Filter could be.  The effect would be to shift the probability more strongly to the hypothesis that the Great Filter is ahead of us, not behind us.  And if we discovered the fossils of some very complex life form, such as of some vertebrate‐like
creature, we would have to conclude that the probability is very great that the bulk of the Great Filter is ahead of us.  Such a discovery would be a crushing blow.  It would be by far the worst news ever printed on a newspaper cover.

— from Where are they?: Why I hope the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing by Nick Bostrom

Essentially: there ought to be a lot of extraterrestrial civilizations, but we haven’t seen any. Either we’re the only advanced civilization in the observed part of our universe (unlikely), or all the other advanced civilizations have disappeared through a ‘great filter’ that destroys them under some condition — population, resource use, warfare, etc.

If we find evidence of alien life, it reduces the probability that life is very rare, thus increasing the probability that there is a great filter.

And, if there is a great filter, we have to ask whether it’s behind us (which would be a relief) or whether it’s still ahead of us. If we find fossils of a dead lifeform that was very simple, we could argue that the great filter is something we passed through millions or billions of years ago. If we find fossils of complex lifeforms, it means we may be living through the great filter right now.

Decomposition

People will tell you that science, philosophy, and religion have nowadays all come together. So they have in a sense … they have come together as three people may come together at a funeral. The funeral is that of Dead Certainty.

— Stephen Leacock

Homelessness

The rootless fluidity of globalisation so recently celebrated by many young, educated urbanites feeds a new division between those who want the cosmopolitan city and those who prefer the settled provincial life; between those who think airports are part of daily life and those who go there only for their holidays; those that like the provisional, digital, networked economy and those who want the certainty of living in the same place, with the same people and following the same routines.

Heidegger maintained that modernity makes us feel homeless much of the time. Indeed, one reason large companies are so distrusted is that they seem to relish exactly what we recoil from: being homeless, a ‘citizen of nowhere’, as Theresa May, the new British Prime Minister, recently put it in a speech to the Conservative Party. Corporations manage to get away with paying minimal tax because they can threaten to relocate at the drop of a hat. The jobs on which our homes depend appear to be hostage to people who regard rootlessness as an optimal state. Heidegger’s point is that such tensions can only intensify as modernity accelerates.

— From Nobody is Home by Charles Leadbetter

This article is a good, brief cataloguing of the complaints which have arisen with respect to the changed qualities of ‘home’ in the 21st century.

Recently I was at a talk, and overheard the speaker having a conversation with the host before the lecture. Neither could understand why society was not moving more quickly toward the ‘citizen of nowhere’ future, where robots and software do most of the work, and almost every activity of domestic life is provided as a subscription service. They were regarding this inevitability as nearly utopian — it would have some quirks, but for the most part it amounted to a more efficient (and thus preferable) way to live.

A deepening sense of foreboding

[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots…

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

— Richard Rorty, Achieving America, 1998

Abandoned Places

“What I began to say was that whenever you come upon what appears to be an abandoned house—or anything of that kind— and find that it is not really abandoned, that someone is in fact living in it, you should be very suspicious of that person.”

— Gene Wolfe

The Barometer of Damocles

“I remember hearing of one man,” Sasha said, gesturing up at the ridge. “He reached the summit in and conditions, thick snow, with two others. They could see another big storm coming from the east, so they turned round straight away and followed their own tracks back along the ridge. After five minutes’ walking, he went blind in one eye. Click! Just like that — blackness. Like turning off a light. His retina had gone. A couple more paces and click! — the other one went too. Both retinas ripped off by the pressure. They led him for a while, but he would never get down with no eyes. Finally he just sat down in the now to die.”

Sasha shrugged his shoulders. “He’s still up there. That is how it is at height.”

— Quoted by Robert McFarlane, in Mountains of the Mind

Name as Destiny

We came to Tierra Blanca. The descriptive name did not describe the place. Spanish names are apt only as ironies or simplifications; they seldom fit. The argument is usually stated differently, to demonstrate how dull, how literal-minded and unimaginative the Spanish explorer or cartographer was. Seeing a dark river, the witness quickly assigned a name: Río Negro. It is a common name through Latin America; yet it never matches the color of the water. And the four Río Colorados I saw bore not the slightest hint of red. Piedras Negras was marshland, not black stones; I saw no stags at Venado Tuerto, no lizards at Lagartos. None of the Lagunas Verdes was green; my one La Dorada looked leaden; Progreso in Guatemala was backward; La Libertad in El Salvador, a stronghold of repression in a country where salvation seemed in short supply. La Paz was not peaceful, nor was La Democracia democratic. This was not literalness — it was whimsy. Place names called attention to beauty, freedom, piety, or strong colors; but the places themselves, so prettily named, were something else. Was it willful inaccuracy, or a lack of subtlety that made the map so glorious with fine attributes and praises? Latins found it hard to live with dull facts; the enchanting name, while not exactly making their town magical, at least took the curse off it. And there was always a chance that an evocative name might evoke something to make the plain town bearable.

— Paul Theroux

Theroux is a master of the semicolon.

Syllepsis

… Sir Edward Hopeless, as guest at Lady Panmore’s ball, complained of feeling ill, took a highball, his hat, his coat, his departure, no notice of his friends, a taxi, a pistol from his pocket, and finally his life.

— Mark Forsyth

Syllepsis is the use of the same word in different ways.

Double Lives

I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant, unsure of each, suspecting each.

— Cary Grant

Celebrity logic

When you look at the classical-music repertory, you can’t really complain that a bunch of mediocrities have crowded out the composers of real talent. If you have Monteverdi representing the late Renaissance and early Baroque, or Haydn and Mozart representing the Classical era, or Beethoven, Schubert, Verdi, Wagner, and Brahms standing in for the nineteenth century, you get to feast on a tremendous body of work. Posterity has been more or less right in its judgments. The problem, though, is that Mozart becomes a brand to sell tickets, and there’s an assumption that any work of Mozart is worth scrutiny. In fact, he wrote a fair amount of music that doesn’t radiate genius in every bar. Meanwhile, there are composers of his era— Luigi Boccherini, for example— who produced many fascinating and beautiful pieces, even if you can’t quite claim that they rise to Mozart’s level. Ultimately, the repertory operates on a celebrity logic. These happen to be celebrities of thundering genius, but we’re still giving in to a winner-takes-all mentality. There’s a basic human reason for this simplification: it’s difficult to cope with the infinite variety of the past, and so we apply filters, and we settle on a few famous names.

Alex Ross

An Elvis future, a Dylan future

As I write this sentence, the social stature of Elvis and Dylan feels similar—perhaps even identical. But it’s entirely possible that one of those people will get dropped as time plods forward. And if that happens, the consequence will be huge. If we concede that the “hero’s journey” is the de facto story through which we understand history, the differences between these two heroes would profoundly alter the description of what rock music supposedly was.

If Elvis (minus Dylan) is the definition of rock, then rock is remembered as showbiz. Like Frank Sinatra, Elvis did not write songs; he interpreted songs that were written by other people (and like Sinatra, he did this brilliantly). But removing the essentialism of songwriting from the rock equation radically alters the context of its social value. It becomes a solely performative art form, where the meaning of a song matters less than the person singing it. It becomes personality music, and the dominant qualities of Presley’s persona—his sexuality, his masculinity, his larger-than-life charisma—become the dominant signifiers of what rock was. His physical decline and reclusive death become an allegory for the entire culture. The reminiscence of the rock genre adopts a tragic hue, punctuated by gluttony, drugs, and the conscious theft of black culture by white opportunists. But if Dylan (minus Elvis) becomes the definition of rock, everything reverses. In this contingency, lyrical authenticity becomes everything: rock is galvanized as an intellectual craft, interlocked with the folk tradition. It would be remembered as far more political than it actually was, and significantly more political than Dylan himself. The fact that Dylan does not have a conventionally “good” singing voice becomes retrospective proof that rock audiences prioritized substance over style, and the portrait of his seven-decade voyage would align with the most romantic version of how an eclectic collection of fifty autonomous states eventually became a place called “America”.

These are the two best versions of this potential process. And both are flawed.

Chuck Klosterman

The flaw he mentions is not only with the false dichotomy we face, but that the thought experiment itself may be wrong. For example, it’s just as likely that people of the future will decide what rock and roll music ‘was’ first, and then choose a representative artist to be the archetypal rock musician.

Limitations

Milton was a genius that could cut a Colossus from a rock but could not carve heads upon cherry-stones.

Samuel Johnson

Self-evaluation, youthful priggishness

When I was a boy of about fifteen, I decided to look into all my beliefs, and discard them if they seemed to have no foundation except tradition or my own prejudices. Being a good deal of a prig, I intended to face one painful possibility every day; I began with the possibility that it might have been better if the English had lost the battle of Waterloo. After pondering this hypothesis for a long time, I found out one argument on Napoleon’s side: that if he had won, England would have had the decimal system.

Bertrand Russell

Imagine

Imagine the problem is not physical. Imagine the problem has never been physical, that it is not biodiversity, it is not the ozone layer, it is not the greenhouse effect, the whales, the old-growth forest, the loss of jobs, the crack in the ghetto, the abortions, the tongue in the mouth, the diseases stalking everywhere as love goes on unconcerned. Imagine the problem is not some syndrome of our society that can be solved by commissions or laws or a redistribution of what we call wealth. Imagine that it goes deeper, right to the core of what we call our civilization and that no one outside of ourselves can affect real change, that our civilization, our governments are sick and that we are mentally ill and spiritually dead and that all our issues and crises are symptoms of this deeper sickness … then what are we to do?

Charles Bowden

Posterity, Confusion

The only thing one can be proud of is of having worked in such a way that an official reward for your labor cannot be envisaged by anyone.

Jean Cocteau

Design and Art

Design is the process of going from an existing condition to a preferred one. Observe that there’s no relationship to art.

Milton Glaser

A second definition of design, with helpful commentary. See also Tolstoy, answering the question What is Art

Popularity; foolishness

Those who wish for popularity should bear in mind that people do not want generally to be made less foolish or less wicked. What they want is to be told that they are not foolish and not wicked. Now it is only a fool or a liar or both who can tell them this; the masses therefore cannot be expected to like any but fools or liars or both. So when a lady gets photographed, what she wants is not to be made beautiful but to be told that she is beautiful.

Samuel Butler’s Notebook

Ars Brevis

The destruction of great works of literature and art is as necessary for the continued development of either one or the other as death is for that of organic life. We fight against it as long as we can and often stave it off successfully both for ourselves and others but there is nothing so great — not Homer, Shakespeare, Handel, Rembrandt, de Hooghe, and the goodly company of other great men for whose lives we would gladly give our own — but it has got to go sooner or later, and leave no visible traces, though the invisible ones endure from everlasting to everlasting. It is idle to regret this for ourselves or others. Our effort should tend towards enjoying and being enjoyed as highly and for as long a time as we can, and then chancing the rest.

Samuel Butler’s Notebook

Adolescence and Maturity

Adolescents are simply those people who haven’t as yet chosen between childhood and adulthood. For as long as anyone tries to hold on to the advantages of childhood—the freedom from responsibility, principally—while seeking to lay claim to the best parts of adulthood, such as independence, he is an adolescent.

Gene Wolfe

Set Pieces

Like all other villages in Kumaon, Thak during its hundreds of years of existence has passed through many vicissitudes, but never before in its long history had it been deserted as it now was. On my previous visits I had found it a hive of industry, but when I went up to it this afternoon, taking the young buffalo with me, silence reigned over it. Every of the hundred or more inhabitants had fled taking their livestock with them — the only animal I saw in the village was a cat, which gave me a warm welcome; so hurried had the evacuation been that many of the doors of the houses had been left wide open. On every path in the village, in the courtyards of the houses and in the dust before all the doors, I found the tigress’s pugmarks. The open doorways were a menace, for the path as it wound through the village passed close to them, and in any of the houses the tigress might have been lurking.

Jim Corbett

The Man-Eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett was a sensation when it was published in 1945, and it’s not hard to see why. The climax of the book is Corbett’s story of hunting a murderous tiger through the jungle, a race against time at the age of 62. In the failing light of his last hour as a hunter, he calls to the tigress and she comes to him. The whole story is cinematic, and the scene where he enters the abandoned village is a high point.

Speeches: dramatic and poetic

The aim of the serious dramatist is to invent a situation in which several characters reveal — in a way which is spontaneous because it is produced by the situation — the fundamental nature of their being and their attitude to life. Now the poet is someone who devotes his life to exactly such a process of self-revelation as drama attempts to produce in characters: his poems are speeches from the drama of the time in which he is living.

Stephen Spender

Very specific tastes, vol. III

On the plus side

The only enjoyment of property that the destitute can enjoy is its destruction.

Stanely Morrison

High-Level Characteristics

“You must not judge people by their country,” a lady advised me. “In South America, it is always wise to judge people by their altitude.”

She was from Bolivia herself. She explained that there were fewer national characteristics than high-level characteristics. The mountain people who lived on the heights of the Andes were formal and unapproachable; the valley people were much more hospitable, and the sea-level folk were the sweetest of all, though rather idle and lazy. Someone who lived at an altitude of about four thousand feet was just about ideal, a real good scout, whether he lived in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, or wherever.

Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express

Longetivity

Rome, Italy, is an example of what happens when the buildings in a city last too long.

Andy Warhol

The false consensus effect

The mistake made by those advocating this position is their certitude that this perspective is self-evident. It’s not. These advocates remind me of an apocryphal quote attributed to film critic Pauline Kael after the 1972 presidential election: “How could Nixon have won? I don’t know one person who voted for him.” Now, Kael never actually said this. But that erroneous quote survives as the best shorthand example for why smart people tend to be wrong as often as their not-so-smart peers—they work from the flawed premise that their worldview is standard.

Chuck Klosterman

As footnoted, the actual quote reads:

‘I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.’

In some ways, it’s even more damning, because it is aristocratically judgmental, rather than innocently ignorant.

The Last Refuge

What is patriotism but the love of the good things we ate in our childhood?

Lin Yutang

Nature’s roughest production

Three centuries ago, risking one’s life to climb a mountain would have been considered tantamount to lunacy. The notion barely existed, indeed, that wild landscape might hold any sort of appeal. To the orthodox seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century imagination, natural scenery was appreciated largely for the extent to which it spoke of agricultural fecundity. Meadows, orchards, grazing fields, the rich sillion of crop lands — these were the ideal components of a landscape. Tamed landscapes, in other words, were attractive: landscapes which had had a human order imposed upon them by the plough, the hedgerow and the ditch. As late as 1791 William Gilpin noted that ‘the generality of people’ found wilderness dislikeable. ‘These are few,’ he continued, ‘who do not prefer the busy scenes of cultivation to the greatest of nature’s rough productions.’ Mountains, nature’s roughest productions, were not only agriculturally intractable, they were also aesthetically repellent: it was felt that their irregular and gargantuan outlines upset the natural spirit-level of the mind.

Robert McFarlane

A sillion is a furrow made by a plow.

Good Criticism

The injunction “Resist not evil but overcome evil with good” may in many spheres of life by impossible to obey literally, but in the sphere of the arts it is common sense. Bad art is always with us, but any given work of art is always bad in a period way; the particular kind of badness it exhibits will pass away to be succeeded by some other kind. It is unnecessary, therefore, to attack it, because it will perish anyway. Had Macaulay never written his review of Robert Montgomery, we would not today be still under the illusion that Montgomery was a great poet. The only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated by the public.

Auden

A Survey of Eden

All the judgments, aesthetic or moral, that we pass, however objective we try to make them, are in part a rationalization and in part a corrective discipline of our subjective wishes. So long as a man writes poetry or fiction, his dream of Eden is his own business, but the moment he starts writing literary criticism, honesty demands that he describe it to his readers, so that they may be in the position to judge his judgments.

Auden

He then goes on to provide a questionnaire, to be administered to all literary critics, which seeks to define their definition of paradise. Text in bold is the question itself, followed by Auden’s own answer to his question, which he provides in the interest of disclosure.

  • Landscape
    Limestone uplands like the Pennines plus a small regvion of igneous rocks with at least one extinct volcano. A precipitous and indented sea-coast.
  • Climate
    British
  • Ethnic origin of inhabitants
    Highly varied as in the United States, but with a slight nordic predominance.
  • Language
    Of mixed origins like English, but highly inflected.
  • Weights & Measures
    Irregular and Complicated. No decimal system.
  • Religion
    Roman Catholic in an easygoing Mediterranean sort of way. Lots of local saints.
  • Size of Capital
    Plato’s ideal figure, 5004, about right.
  • Form of Government
    Absolute monarchy, elected for life by lot.
  • Sources of Natural Power
    Wind, water, peat, coal. No oil.
  • Economic Activities
    Lead mining, coal mining, chemical factories, paper mills, sheep farming, truck farming, greenhouse horticulture.
  • Means of transport
    Horses and horse-drawn vehicles, canal barges, balloons. No automobiles or airplanes.
  • Architecture
    State: Baroque. Ecclesiastical: Romanesque or Byzantine. Domestic: Eighteenth Cneutyr British or American Colonial.
  • Domestic Furniture and Equipment
    Victorian except for kitchens and bathrooms which are as full of modern gadgets as possible.
  • Formal Dress
    The fashion of Paris in the 1830’s and ’40’s.
  • Sources of Public Information
    Gossip. Technical and learned periodicals but no newspapers.
  • Public Statues
    Confined to famous defunct chefs.
  • Public Entertainments
    Religious Processions, Brass Bands, Opera, Classical Ballet. No movies, radio or television.

It does end up being pretty revealing. I wonder if any other critics ever filled out the questionnaire.

The Value of a Dictionary

Though a work of literature can be read in a number of ways, this number is finite and can be arranged in a hierarchical order; some readings are obviously “truer” than others, some doubtful, some obviously false, and some, like reading a novel backwards, absurd. That is why, for a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiefce imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways.

Auden

Good taste

Good taste is much more a matter of discrimination than of exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, it is with regret, not with pleasure.

Auden

Too High & Too Steep

I found a lot to remember from David Williams’ history of Seattle, and its interminable battle with topography, Too High & Too Steep. One thing is that the tideflats which used to make up all of Sodo and the South part of the city, including both stadia and Harbor Island, were not (as I’d always been told) made up of fill from dredging out the canal at the North end of Lake Washington, or even the Denny regrade. In fact, this area was created with material from a failed and scandalous attempt to cut a channel through Beacon hill, in order to unite South Lake Washington with Elliot Bay.

Although the value of made land in the former tideflats had increased at least tenfold since Semple’s project began, not everyone supported the South Canal. Opponents claimed that Semple actually had no plan to build his canal; instead, he was misleading the public and only blasting away at Beacon Hill to create material to fill the tideflats, which he intended to sell. Ironically, those who opposed the canal supported filling in the tideflats; what they didn’t approve of was that Semple used a public project to benefit himself. In addition, many of Semple’s opponents, including Burke, supported and owned property near where a north canal could be built (where the modern ship canal now exists).

Yielding to public opinion and the north-canal plan’s powerful supporters, the city council voted to turn off the supply of water that Semple needed to run his hydraulic cannons. By the end of 1904, notes Semple’s biographer, weeds were growing in the chasm on Beacon Hill. Semple’s decision to try to cut through Beacon Hill ultimately had been his downfall. IN may 1905, he was forced to resign as president of the Seattle and Lake Washington Waterway Company, though the company continued to exist and, by 1917, had filled in 92 percent of the tideflats. No more work would be done ever again on the proposed South Canal through Beacon Hill, but if you look, you can still find two infrastructure elements from Semple’s misguided scheme.

To see the first, go to the spider’s web of ramps and overpasses that connect the Spoke Street Viaduct and Interstate 5 to Columbia Way and Beacon Hill. Engineers chose this spot to build the interchange because it is where Semple had started his canal, creating a large, unoccupied gap that eventually provided the easiest access up to the hill. The second is down on the flats. In contrast to the typical blocks measuring more than seven hundred feet long, South Hinds and South Horton Streets are just three hundred feet apart. They are so anomalously close because they mark the north and south boundaries of what was to be Semple’s Canal Waterway, which would have run from the East Waterway to his canal through Beacon Hill.

David Williams

Habitations for Mice and Vermin

Books would be precious things indeed, if the mere possession of them guaranteed culture to their owner. You rich men would have it all your own way then; we paupers could not stand against you, if learning were a marketable commodity; and as for the dealers, no one would presume to contest the point of culture with men who have whole shopfuls of books at their disposal.

What is your idea, now, in all this rolling and unrolling of scrolls? To what end the gluing and the trimming, the cedar-oil and saffron, the leather cases and the bosses? Much good your purchases have been to you; one sees that already: why, your language — no, I am wrong there, you are as dumb as a fish — but your life, your unmentionable vices, make every one hate the sight of you; if that is what books do, one cannot keep too clear of them. There are two ways in which a man may derive benefit from the study of the ancients: he may learn to express himself, or he may improve his morals by their example and warning; when it is clear that he has not profited in either of these respects, what are his books but a habitation for mice and vermin, and a source of castigation to negligent servants?

Lucian of Samosata, from Remarks Addressed to an Illiterate Book-Fancier

Attention as a resource

From the human point of view, a filter focuses content. But seen in reverse, from the content point of view, a filter focuses human attention. The more content expands, the more focused that attention needs to become. Way back in 1971, Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize-winning social scientist, observed, “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Simon’s insight is often reduced to “In a world of abundance, the only scarcity is human attention.”

Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable.

Two quotes for the price of one.

Trains, National Character

The trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Ceylonese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar. The railway bazaar, with its gadgets and passengers, represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character. At times it was like a leisurely seminar, but I also felt on some occasions that it was like being jailed and then assaulted by the monstrously typical.

Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

Ranch Life, Consolation

There were few sounds to break the stillness of summer. From the upper branches of the cottonwoods — whose shimmering, tremulous leaves if there was the least bit of wind rustled and quivered and sighed all day long — came now and then the cooing of the mourning dove, whose voice always seemed far away and expressed more than any other sound in nature the sadness of gentle, hopeless, never-ending grief. The cattle, that had strung down in long files from the hills, lay quietly on sand bars, except that some of the bulls kept traveling up and down, bellowing and giving vent to long, surly grumblings as they pawed the sand and tossed it up with their horns.

No life could be pleasanter than during the months of fall. The weather was cool and inviting. In the evenings and on the rare rainy days we were glad to sit by the great fireplace, with its roaring cottonwood logs. But on most days not a cloud dimmed the serene splendor of the sky. The fresh pure air was clear with the wonderful clearness of the high plains. We were in the saddle from morning until night. The fall was the time for riding. In the keen, frosty air neither man nor beast would tire, though out from the dawn until the shadows had again waxed long, warning all to push straight for home without drawing rein. Then deer-saddles and elk-haunches hung from the trees near the house, and one could always have good sport right on the sand of the river bed, for we always kept shotgun or rifle at hand to be ready for any prairie chickens or passing waterfowl that might light on the river.

When the days had dwindled to their shortest, and the nights seemed never-ending, then all the great northern plains were changed into an abode of iron desolation. Sometimes furious gales blew out of the north, driving before them the clouds of blinding snow-dust, wrapping the mantle of death round every unsheltered being that faced their unshackled anger. They roared in a thunderous bass as they swept across the prairie or whirled through the naked canyons. They shivered the great brittle cottonwoods, and beneath their rough touch the icy limbs of the pines that clustered in the gorges sang like the chords of an Aeolian harp. Again, in the coldest midwinter weather, not a breath of wind might stir. Then the still, merciless, terrible cold that brooded over the earth like the shadow of silent death seemed even more dreadful in its gloomy rigor than in the lawless madness of the storms. All the land was like granite. The great rivers stood still in their beds, as if turned to frosted steel. In the long nights there was no sound to break the lifeless silence. Under the ceaseless, shifting play of the Northern Lights, or lighted only by the wintry brilliance of the stars, the snow-clad plains stretched out into dead and endless wastes of glimmering white.

Then the great fireplace of the ranch house was choked with blazing logs, and at night we had to sleep under so many blankets that the weight was fairly oppressive. Outside, the shaggy ponies huddled together in the corral, while long icicles hung from their lips, and the hoarfrost whitened the hollow backs of the cattle.

A ride in midwinter was fascinating. The great white country wrapped in the powdery snow-drift seemed like another land. The familiar landmarks were so changed that a man must be careful lest he lose his way. When the sun was out of the glare from the endless white stretches dazzled the eyes. If the gray snowclouds hung low and only let a pale, wan light struggle through, the lonely wastes became fairly appalling in their desolation.

There were few moments more pleasant than the home coming, when, in the gathering darkness, after crossing the last chain of ice-covered buttes, or after coming round the last turn in the wind-swept valley, we saw, through the leafless trees, or across the frozen river, the red gleam of the firelight as it shone through the ranch windows and flickered over the trunks of the cottonwoods outside, warming a man’s blood by the mere hint of the warmth awaiting him within.

The long winter evenings were spent sitting round the hearthstone, while the logs roared and crackled, and the men played checkered or chess, in the firelight.

Rough board shelves held a number of books without which some of the evenings would have been long indeed. As for Irving, Hawthorne, Cooper, Lowell, and the other standbys, I suppose no man, East or West, would willingly be long without. For lighter reading there were dreamy Ik Marvel, Burroughs’ breezy pages, and the quaint, pathetic character-sketches of the Southern writers — Cable, Craddock, Macon, Joel Chandler Harris, and sweet Sherwood Bonner. And when one was in the Bad Lands he felt as if they somehow looked just exactly as Poe’s tales and poems sounded.

Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt had two ranches in North Dakota: Maltese Cross and Elkhorn. After his wife and mother both died on the same day, of unrelated illnesses, he wrote “the light has gone out of my life,” and retreated to the Badlands to for a period of strenuous self-direction he reference for the rest of his life.

I appreciate the gentleness of the description, and how he ends his portrait of a year on the frontier with a list of the authors who kept him company.

Infinite square feet

I’m thinking of examples of the kind of architecture that’s been showing up, primarily in video games of the last couple decades, typified by cyclopean underground facilities of steel and concrete.

The famous “Welcome to Black Mesa” sequence in Half-Life introduces the facility as an endless labyrinth of impossible, windowless spaces, so twisting and massive that no person could understand the whole thing. It’s made of enormous edifices of poured concrete slabs, bottomless pits, vaulted hangars, towering silos traced by catwalks. An interior space of arbitrary size, nearly endless, such that no single feature seems to be the thing it was built to contain.

Even the lab where Freeman works is hinted as only one of many labs of equal or greater importance, just as we’re given to understand that an Ph.D. is Theoretical Physics from MIT is just barely enough qualification to work there. Gordon’s nobody special, and certainly not impressive. What could be impressive in a place like this? The builders of Black Mesa had infinite resources, somehow infinite time as well.

HL1Shot1

Who built this place. Where are the blueprints? Who ran the electrical wires; who worked out the ventilation? These aren’t questions worth asking, because the whole architecture is impossible. It’s an engineer’s purgatory dream, with Freeman lost and wandering not through measureless caverns, but a well-ordered madness of unending corridors and enormous rooms with blinking lights, safety placards, janitorial equipment. He travels a mile into the complex, then at least as far to get out, and not by the same route. Not likely are those the only two paths, either, which asks the question of how many other distinct ways there are in and out. How many other nuclear missiles are secreted there, how many other reactors, accelerators, train systems winding through the bedrock?

Infinity is implied through architecture. I’ll give Valve credit for drawing a modern aesthetic out of the same impulse that makes Piranesi’s 200-year old Imaginary Prisons sketches so uncanny. I’m not sure those game developers were the first to do it, but they’re the ones I know about.

As for the humanities, there’s Borges’ Library of Babel, but that place, (though mathematical) is fundamentally unscientific, un-engineered, un-bureaucratic. It’s gnostic. A soul can exist there, whereas the only thing inside Black Mesa’s bones is rebar.

725551-portal-2-macintosh-screenshot-aperture-science-facility-is

If Half-Life is the first, Portal and Portal 2 take it even further. The Aperature Science Enrichment Center lacks even the conceit of being designed for human ergonomics: it exists only to test humans (and robots) with puzzles, thus a room may be of any size and configuration. One gets the sense that GlaDOS has occupied her long solitude by designing an entire hell—and hell’s back stage areas—to which she is constantly making additions at a scale which is unimpressive to an electronic mind and inconceivable to a human one.

960

I said I was thinking of examples of this idea of an infinite underground facility, so here are the others I’ve got: Hugh Howey’s Silo series taps into the same feeling, with its conceit of living your entire life inside an underground tube of steel and concrete and stairways and bulkheads. So does Playdead’s recent game Inside, which takes place in a cryptic subterranean research complex, as well as a sort of sunken, Atlantean version of same.

The true face of the earth

The airplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth. For centuries, highways had been deceiving us. We were like that queen who determined to move among her subjects so that she might learn for herself whether or not they rejoiced in her reign. Her courtiers took advantage of her innocence to garland the road she traveled and set dancers in her path. Led forward on their halter, she saw nothing of her kingdom and could not know that over the countryside the famished were cursing her.

Even so have we been making our way along the winding roads. Roads avoid barren lands, the rocks, and the sands. They shape themselves to man’s needs and run from stream to stream. They lead the farmer from his barns to his wheatfields, receive at the thresholds of stables the sleepy cattle and pour them forth at dawn into meadows of alfalfa. They join village to village, for between villages marriages are made.

And even when a road hazards its way over the desert, you will see it make a thousand détours to take its pleasure at the oases. Thus, led astray by the divagations of roads, as by other indulgent fictions, having in the course of our travels skirted so many well-watered lands, so many orchards, so many meadows, we have from the beginning of time embellished the picture of our prison. We have elected to believe that our planet was merciful and fruitful.

But a cruel light has blazed, and our sight has been sharpened. The plane has taught us to travel as the crow flies. Scarcely have we taken off when we abandon these winding highways that slope down to watering troughs and stables or run away to towns dreaming in the shade of their trees. Freed henceforth from this happy servitude, delivered from the need of fountains, we set our course for distance destinations. And then, only, from the height of our rectilinear trajectories, do we discover the essential foundation, the fundament of rock and sand and salt in which here and there and from time to time life like a little moss in the crevices of ruins has risked its precarious existence.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Suicide

I once knew a young suicide. I cannot remember what disappointment in live it was which induced him to send a bullet carefully into his heart. I have no notion what literary temptation he had succumbed to when he drew on a pair of white gloves before the shot. But I remember having felt, on learning of this sorry show, an impression not of nobility but of lack of dignity. So! Behind that attractive face, beneath that skull which should have been a treasure chest, there had been nothing, nothing at all.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Fashion

When cuffs disappeared from men’s trousers, fashion designers gave interviews explaining that the cuff was archaic and ill-suited to contemporary living. It collected dust, contributed nothing. When the trouser cuff returned, did it collect less dust and begin at last to make a contribution? Probably no fashion designer would argue the point; but the question never came up. Designers got rid of the cuff because there aren’t many options for making trousers different. They restored it for the same reason.

Ralph Caplan

Artificiality

“It’s a kind of heresy to say so, but I think our race has made forms more beautiful than what was here before us. Sometimes god’s handiwork is crude. There is no more ugly thing than a lobster. There’s not much pretty about a caribou. It has an ungainly walk and its touchhole voids droppings when it strains in harness. Was there a straight line on earth before we drew one?”

Marcel Theroux, Far North

In a book that’s easy to compare to Cormac McCarthy, this may be the most stylistically comparable line I happened to note down.

Design, a concise definition

Design is the intentional solution to a problem within a set of constraints.

Mike Monteiro

Clipped because it’s a slightly more succinct formulation of the statement I’ve been trying to settle on for years. It’s useful to have good definitions chambered; I’ll use Tolstoy’s for art, and Mike Monteiro’s for design.

He’s is one of the few people who write about design and it makes horse sense. This article (uh-oh, listicle), which is the source of the quote, shares a lot of overlap with his book Design is a Job. I see that he has another, and I’ll read it soon.

Theory and Experience

A deep, intuitive appreciation of the inherent cussedness of materials and structures is one of the most valuable accomplishments an engineer can have. No purely intellectual quality is really a substitute for this. Bridges designed upon the best ‘modern’ theories by Polytechniciens like Navier sometimes fell down. As far as I know, none of the hundreds of bridges and other engineering works which Telford built in the course of his long professional life ever gave serious trouble. Thus, during the period when French structural theory was outstanding, a great proportion of the railways and bridges on the Continent were being built by gritty and taciturn English and Scottish engineers who had little respect for the calculus.

J.E. Gordon, Structures

AI as a Utility

Amid all this activity, of a picture of our AI future is coming into view, and it is not the HAL 9000—a discrete machine animated by a charismatic (yet potentially homicidal) humanlike consciousness—or a Singularitan rapture of superintelligence. The AI on the horizon looks more like Amazon Web Services—cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything, and almost invisible except when it blinks off. This common utility will serve you as much IQ as you want but no more than you need. You’ll simply plug into the grid and get AI as if it was electricity. It will enliven inert objects, much as electricity did more than a century past. Three generations ago, many a tinkerer struck it rich by taking a tool and making an electric version. Take a manual pump; electrify it. Find a hand-wringer washer; electrify it. The entrepreneurs didn’t need to generate the electricity; they brought it from the grid and used it to automate the previously manual. Now everything that we formerly electrified we will cognify. There is almost nothing we can think of that cannot be made new, different, or more valuable by infusing it with some extra IQ. In fact, the business plans of the next 10,000 startups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI. Find something that can be made better by adding online smartness to it.

Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable

The Price of Entertainment

In 1995 I calculated the average hourly costs for various media platforms, including music, books, newspapers, and movies. There was some variation between media, but the price stayed within the same order of magnitude, converging on a mean of $2.00 per hour. In 1995 we tended to pay, on average, two bucks per hour for media use.

Fifteen years later, in 2010, and then again in 2015, I recalculated the values for a similar set of media using the same method. When I adjusted for inflation and translated in 2015 dollars, the average cost to consume one hour of media in 1995, 2010 and 2015 is respectively $3.08, $2.69, and $3.37. That means that the value of our attention has been remarkably stable over 20 years.

Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable

Highly unscientific, but it seems to line up with what I generally pay for media

Revenge

Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.

Gauguin

Progress

These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.

Cormac McCarthy

General Mint

The wind was a woman, too. Sometimes it was a woman like General Mint, a small woman with a neat, pure, honest little face, a woman in flowing black astride the tallest white stallion anyone ever saw, singing as she rode like a flame before a thousand wild troopers who rode as she did or ran like wolves, firing and reloading as they came and halting only to die.

Gene Wolfe

General Mint is a character in The Book of the Long Sun, though this passage is from The Book of the Short Sun

Philosophical Materialism

It is known that Whistler, when asked how long it took him to paint one of his ‘nocturnes’ answered: ‘All of my life.’

With the same rigor he could have said that all of the centuries that preceded the moment when he painted were necessary. From that correct application of the law of causality it follows that the slightest event presupposes the inconceivable universe and, conversely, that the universe needs even the slightest of events.

Borges

Travel, Arguments Against

“I am not much an advocate for travelling, and I observe that men run away to other countries because they are not good in their own, and run back to their own because they pass for nothing in the new places. For the most part, only the light characters travel. Who are you that have no task to keep you at home? I have been quoted as saying captious things about travel; but I mean to do justice… He that does not fill a place at home, cannot abroad. He only goes there to hide his insignificance in a larger crowd. You do not think you will find anything there which you have not seen at home? The stuff of all countries is just the same. Do you suppose there is any country where they do not scald milk-pans, and swaddle the infants, and burn the brushwood, and broil the fish? What is true anywhere is true everywhere. And let him go where he will, he can only find so much beauty or worth as he carries.”

Emerson

Corruption in Government

“The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods.”

H. L. Mencken

Employment, the Nature of

“A person in a uniform is merely an extension of another person’s will.”

Philip Slater

What is Art

“Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.”

Tolstoy

If you ignore the parts about Christianity, Tolstoy’s definition of art is pretty sturdy. I don’t think that doing so undermines it, either. In fact, it’s been my personal litmus test for about fifteen years, and I can’t recall a time when it let me down. It’s broad enough to include most works of art I approve of, but (for the most part) excludes the ones I don’t.

The Mildew and the Flame

“You talk of the scythe of Time, and the tooth of Time: I tell you, Time is scytheless and toothless; it is we who gnaw like the worm — we who smite like the scythe. It is ourselves who abolish — ourselves who consume: we are the mildew, and the flame; and the soul of man is to its own work as the moth that frets when it cannot fly, and as the hidden flame that blasts where it cannot illuminate. All these lost treasures of human intellect have been wholly destroyed by human industry of destruction; the marble would have stood its two thousand years as well in the polished status as in the Parian cliff; but we men have ground it to powder, and mixed it with our own ashes. The walls and the ways would have stood — it is we who have left but one stone upon another, and restored its pathlessness to the desert; the great cathedrals of the old religion would have stood — it is we who have dashed down the carved work with axes and hammers, and bid the mountain-grass bloom upon the pavement, and the sea-winds chant in the galleries.”

John Ruskin

I was wrong to believe it, but the reason I copied this down was because I’d thought Ruskin was saying something different. I thought he was saying nature doesn’t destroy, because its own process is neither creative nor destructive, it’s boring and steady. If someone didn’t build something out of it, nature would just maintain a constant, homogeneous state forever, but by building, mankind creates the conditions for inevitable destruction to occur. In other words, nature as nature doesn’t destroy, it just resumes. If you leave an egg in the nest, it won’t break because it won’t go anywhere. The tragedy is that if you carry it to the roof, you’ve created the future where it falls and cracks open. That’s not it, though.

The Artistic Temperament

“The artistic temperament is a disease which afflicts amateurs.”

Chesterton

Revelations

We to whom humble journeyings were once permitted have now been transformed into physicists, biologists, students of the civilizations that beautify the depths of valleys and now and again, by some miracle, bloom like gardens where the climate allows. We are able to judge man in cosmic terms, scrutinize him through our portholes as through instruments of the laboratory.The airplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth. For centuries, highways had been deceiving us. We were like that queen who determined to move among her subjects so that she might learn for herself whether or not they rejoiced in her reign. Her courtiers took advantage of her innocence to garland the road she traveled and set dancers in her path. Led forward on their halter, she saw nothing of her kingdom and could not know that over the countryside the famished were cursing her.

Even so have we been making our way along the winding roads. Roads avoid the barren lands, the rocks, the sands. They shape themselves to man’s needs and run from stream to stream. They lead the farmer from his barns to his wheat-fields, receive at the thresholds of stables the sleepy cattle and pour them forth at dawn into meadows of alfalfa. They join village to village, for between villages marriages are made.

And even when a road hazards its way over the desert, you will see it make a thousand detours to take its pleasure at the oases. Thus, led astray by the divagations of roads, as by other indulgent fictions, having in the course of our travels skirted so many well-watered lands, so many orchards, so many meadows, we have from the beginning of time embellished the picture of our prison. We have elected to believe that our planet was merciful and fruitful.

But a cruel light has blazed, and our sight has been sharpened. The plane has taught us to travel as the crow flies. Scarcely have we taken off when we abandon these winding highways that slope down to watering troughs and stables or run away to towns dreaming in the shade of their trees. Freed henceforth from this happy servitude, delivered from the need of fountains, we set our course for distant destinations. And then, only, from the height of our rectilinear trajectories, do we discover the essential foundation, the fundament of rock and sand and salt in which here and there and from time to time life like a little moss in the crevices of ruins has risked its precarious existence.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars

Panoptica

In the elder days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part
For the gods see everywhere

Longfellow

A man, running through the woods, emptying wild ginseng from his backpack.

Wild ginseng is scarce in China, where’s been overharvested and underplanted. In Appalachia, it grows wild and the product is of high quality. As the Chinese economy grew, and the Appalachian economy collapsed, selling — and stealing — wild ginseng root became big business.

China’s Gold Rush in the Hills of Appalachia

Literary Criticism

“The imposition of a cause’s idea of reality on the writer’s idea of reality can only mistakenly be called reading.”

Philip Roth

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

Auden

Atmosphere

Ipoh, the first major stop on the Kuala Lumpur run, has a station hotel, a late Victorian Gormenghast with long windows covered by sombre curtains. The brown drapery hangs in thick folds, keeping out the breeze and preserving the heat, which is paddled around the dining room by ten slow fans. All the tables are set, and the waiter, who might be dead, is propped against the wall at the far end of the room. It is fairly certain there is a suicide upstairs waiting to be discovered, and the flies that soar through the high-ceilinged bar are making for the corpse of this ruined planter or disgraced towkay. It is the sort of hotel that has a skeleton in every closet and a register thick with the pseudonyms of adulterers. I once walked into the station hotel at Ipoh with my little boy, and as soon as we crossed the threshold he began to cry. His innocent nose had smelled what mine couldn’t, and I rushed away with him, relieved, savouring the well-being of deliverance.

Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

Tenacity, Mathematics

The Eddington machine would be the universal supercomputer. It would be made of all the atoms in the universe. The Eddington machine would contain ten vigintsextillion parts, and if the Chudnovsky brothers could figure out how to program it with fortran they might make it churn toward pi.

“In order to study the sequence of pi, you have to store it in the Eddington machine’s memory,” Gregory said. To be realistic, the brothers thought that a practical Eddington machine wouldn’t be able to store pi much beyond 1077 digits—a number that is only a hundredth of the Eddington number. Now, what if the digits of pi only begin to show regularity beyond 10 digits?

Suppose, for example, that pi manifests a regularity starting at 10100 decimal places? That number is known as a googol. If the design in pi appears only after a googol of digits, then not even the Eddington machine will see any system in pi; pi will look totally disordered to the universe, even if pi contains a slow, vast, delicate structure. A mere googol of pi might be only the first knot at the corner of a kind of limitless Persian rug, which is woven into increasingly elaborate diamonds, cross-stars, gardens, and cosmogonies. It may never be possible, in principle, to see the order in the digits of pi. Not even nature itself may know the nature of pi.

“If pi doesn’t show systematic behavior until more than ten to the seventy-seven decimal places, it would really be a disaster,” Gregory said. “It would be actually horrifying.”

“I wouldn’t give up,” David said. “There might be some other way of leaping over the barrier—”

“And of attacking the son of a bitch,” Gregory said.

Richard Preston, The Mountains of Pi

History’s Perspective

“If we are remembered at all, it will be as the contemporaries of Herodotus and Mark Twain.”

Gene Wolfe

The Mystery of Red Mercury

Safi al-Safi, an unaffiliated rebel and small-time smuggler specializing in weapons, antiquities and forged documents, sat in an open-air cafe beside the Syrian-Turkish border. He was smoking scented tobacco from a water pipe while discussing the cross-border mercury trade. ‘‘Red mercury has a red color, and there is mercury that has the color of dark blood,’’ he said. “And there is green mercury, which is used for sexual enhancement, and silver mercury is used for medical purposes. The most expensive type is called Blood of the Slaves, which is the darkest type. Magicians use it to summon jinni.”

The Doomsday Scam by C.J. Chivers in The New York Times.

On the borderline between science and magic is a mythical substance called Red Mercury, which displays the most convenient problem-solving characteristics of both: It can be combined with conventional fissile materials to create a miniaturized atomic bomb, but it can also be used as an aphrodisiac. If you paint it on the side of an aircraft, that plane becomes a undetectable to radar. Worn as a charm, it protects against the evil eye, but it can also be used in conjuration. What can’t it do?

Chivers’ article discusses the history of this completely made-up substance while cutting back and forth to an unscrupulous smuggler who’s been asked to obtain some for a group of well-known terrorists.

I vaguely remember something called Red Mercury being used a Macguffin in some video game or other, but I didn’t realize just how common a device it was.

Frustration, Childhood

“Gradually I came to know where I was, and I tried to express my wants to those who could gratify them, yet could not, because my wants were inside me, and they were outside, nor had they any power of getting into my soul. And so I made movements and sounds, signs like my wants, the few I could, the best I could; for they were not really like my meaning. And when I was not obeyed, because people did not understand me, or because they would not do me harm, I was angry, because elders did not submit to me, because freemen would not slave for me, and I avenged myself on them by tears.”

St. Augustine

Inauguration Day

“Well, John, it’s still a little too early to be sure, but this is how I see the next four years playing out: On inauguration day George W. Bush will take the oath of office and assume the mantle of leader of the free world, restoring his father’s fallen dynasty, and, to insure his legitimacy, Chief Justice Rehnquist will anoint his brow with chrisolm. Doves will be released, and lambs will be slaughtered. Bush will mount a golden chariot, then, with his aged squire, Dick Cheney, holding a laurel wreath o’er his master’s furrowed brow, the man who would be boy-king will take his destined throne, and in a much-needed show of strength he will drive his enemies before him like leaves before a storm. He will make whores of our wives and slaves of our children. He will appoint a horse to the senate. He will have the oceans whipped for daring to turn their tides without his leave, and while gangs of willowy young boys rub his body with perfumes from Persia, and the fat rendered from the corpses of the persecuted poor, all about the fevered crowds will stare worshipfully at their unknowing, unseeing, girlishly-giggling idiot emperor’s head. End of day one. Now, day two…”

Stephen Colbert

Bad Metaphors, Inexactitude

“In turning the pages of one of the papers containing such a light and unsympathetic treatment of Tennyson, my eye catches the following sentence:

By the light of modern science and thought, we are in a position to see that each normal human being in some way repeats historically the life of the human race.

“This is a very typical modern assertion; that is, it is an assertion for which there is not and never has been a single spot or speck of proof. We know precious little about what the life of the human race has been; and none of our scientific conjectures about it bear the remotest resemblance to the actual growth of a child.

“According to this theory, a baby begins by chipping flints and rubbing sticks together to find fire. One so often sees babies doing this. About the age of five the child, before the delighted eyes of his parents, founds a village community. By the time he is eleven it has become a small city state, the replica of ancient Athens. Encouraged by this, the boy proceeds, and before he is fourteen has founded the Roman Empire. But now his parents have a serious set-back. Having watched him so far, not only with pleasure, but with a very natural surprise, they must strengthen themselves to endure the spectacle of decay. They have now to watch their child going through the decline of the Western Empire and the Dark Ages. They see the invasion of the Huns and that of the Norsemen chasing each other across his expressive face. He seems a little happier after he has ‘repeated’ the Battle of Chalons and the unsuccessful Siege of Paris ; and by the time he comes to the twelfth century, his boyish face is as bright as it was of old when he was ‘repeating’ Pericles or Camillus.

“I have no space to follow this remarkable demonstration of how history repeats itself in the youth; how he grows dismal at twenty-three to represent the end of Medievalism, brightens because the Renaissance is coming, darkens again with the disputes of the later Reformation, broadens placidly through the thirties as the rational eighteenth century, till at last, about forty-three, he gives a great yell and begins to burn the house down, as a symbol of the French Revolution. Such (we shall all agree) is the ordinary development of a boy.

“Now, seriously, does anyone believe a word of such bosh? Does anyone think that a child will repeat the periods of human history? Does anyone ever allow for a daughter in the Stone Age, or excuse a son because he is in the fourth century B.c. Yet the writer who lays down this splendid and staggering lie calmly says that ‘by the light of modern science and thought we are in a position to see that it is true.

“‘Seeing’ is a strong word to use of our conviction that icebergs are in the north, or that the earth goes round the sun. Yet anybody can use it of any casual or crazy biological fancy seen in some newspaper or suggested in some debating club. This is the rooted weakness of our time. Science, which means exactitude, has become the mother of all inexactitude.”

— Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity

[note: paragraph breaks here are mine, since in the original text the whole thing was one giant paragraph that I found hard to read.]

Humanism, its Legacy

“No humanist is now remembered as a philosopher. They jeer and do not refute. The schoolman advanced, and supported, propositions about things: the humanist replied that his words were inelegant… Words like realitas and identificatio were condemned not because they had no use but because Cicero had not used them. The medieval philosophy is still read as philosophy, the history as history, the songs as songs: the hymns are still in use. The ‘barbarous’ books have survived in the only sense that really matters: they are used as their authors meant them to be used. It would be hard to think of one single text in humanists’ Latin, except the Utopia, of which we can say the same. Petrarch’s Latin poetry, Politian, Buchanan, even sweet Sannazarus, even Erasmus himself, are hardly ever opened except for an historical purpose. We read the humanists, in fact, only to learn about humanism; we read the ‘barbarous’ authors in order to be instructed or delighted about any theme they choose to handle.”

C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century

I don’t take a side on this issue. I have no particular feelings on humanism. I appreciate the sick burn.

Poetry

Three quotes by Paul Valéry about poets, poems, and poetry:

“A man is a poet if the difficulties inherent in his art provide him with ideas; he is not a poet if they deprive him of ideas.”

“To write regular verses destroys an infinite number of fine possibilities, but at the same time it suggests a multitude of distant and totally unexpected thoughts.”

“In poetry everything which must be said is almost impossible to say well.”

Usually, quotes like that (about poetry and what it means) are insufferable. In this specific case, they were quoted by Auden in A Certain World, which gives them a lot more credit.

Science Fiction, its Origins

Hitherto, except in exploration fantasies, the fantastic element was brought in by magic… but by the end of the last century it had become difficult to squeeze even a momentary belief out of magic any longer. It occurred to me that instead of the usual interview with the devil or a magician, an ingenious use of scientific patter might with advantage be substituted… I simply brought the fetish up to date, and made it as near actual theory as possible.

H.G. Wells

Wells claims that he had a notion to paint the old tropes of fantasy with a new, scientific veneer, without substantively changing them, and this sidestep is where science fiction emerged from fantasy. Not an auspicious birth. Feels about right, though; SF always seemed to be a flavor of fantasy.

Ken and Robin’s List of Mandatory Westerns

Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff is one of the most consistently worthwhile podcasts, full stop. They cover a broad, characterizing set of topics bent in the direction of tabletop gaming, but from time to time they depart from that subject to cover food, books, history, or cinema, and always seem to make at least a few insightful points when they do.

They’ve done two episodes so far about important films in the Western genre, and I realized that I hadn’t seen quite a few of them. Here, I’ve transcribed their lists, along with the more quotable parts of their encapsulations.

The ✓ character indicates whether I’ve seen it or not. I wouldn’t have painstakingly typed this up if I didn’t intend to watch them all.

Westerns 101

From Episode 191 (Starting at 00:46:40)

Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) ✓

Robin: If you’re going to start with a western, you’re going to start with John Ford, and you’re going to have two films… two epochal westerns, one featuring John Wayne as a young man, one featuring him as an old man. One classical, the other revisionist.

Ken: I would argue that The Searchers is not revisionist, that in fact it is ‘visionist’. It is the fundamental agon of the western — and has been since the silent days — that every man who picks up the gun becomes a barbarian unfit for civilization, but the only way to stop barbarism is to pick up the gun. It is this great conflict that is at the heart of westerns as far back as Hell’s Hinges* (1916)… and it is again part of the searchers as you see that John Wayne’s character, because he is capable of hunting down the Comanche, is also incapable of civilized existence, and that is the] same decision that he makes in Stagecoach.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) ✓

Ken: The Searchers, in addition to being the second greatest film ever made, is one of the four gospels of the western, along with another John Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which is the film which very clearly lays out the agon of the western.

High Noon (1952) ✓

Ken: Frank Miller is coming to town, and the town cannot be roused to prevent it. Gary Cooper begins to realize that he is the only barbarian left in the town, and he has a choice to make.

Ken: It plays out the morality of the western in an absolutely clear, but never tiresome fashion.

Rio Bravo(1959) ✓

Robin: Hawkes saw [High Noon] and said, ‘I don’t like that Gary Cooper’s going around asking all the townsfolk for help’.

Shane (1953) ✓

Ken: Westerns are always about that moment that the frontier is about to go away, and the western will stop being relevant… which provides ever more mythic depth to the thing, because they’re simultaneously super historically-located, and super mythological. It’s a great illustration of what Eliade calls the illud tempus, the mythical time. Shane is about that moment in mythical time when one guy has to face down Jack Palance.

Unforgiven (1992) ✓

It’s not new, it’s once more about a former bad guy, a sort of Jack Palance character, who has decided to go straight, and can’t do it, because he’s freakin’ Jack Palance, only in this case he’s Clint Eastwood.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) ✓

Ken: Unforgiven is the spot at which you move from the original western toward the revisionist western (people call it revisionist, but it’s not, because it still makes the same decisions about civilization and barbarism). If you want a real revisionist western by Clint Eastwood, look at The Outlaw Josey Wales, which is a great movie, and is 100% on the side of barbarians, on the side of outlaws.

The Naked Spur (1953) ✓

Robin: It’s pulsating with repressed ’50s lust, and like all of these movies, gives you a much different Jimmy Stewart than you think you know if you just know It’s a Wonderful Life, and his doddering appearances in later films. As in Vertigo, there’s something deep, and dark, and strange in the James Stewart that we see in all these Anthony Mann westerns.

The Wild Bunch (1969) ✓

Ken: …About a band of outlaws, and the end of the west closing down on them and crushing them.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) ✓

Robin: Unlike other stars of his caliber, Fonda had not played a villain.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) ✓

Ken: The epistle from the virtuous pagan samurai.

Ken: A movie in which everything works, and it works much better than you would imagine it possibly could have if someone had told you, ‘hey, John Sturges remade The Seven Samurai, only with cowboys.'”

Seven Men From Now (1956)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) ✓

Ken: All great testaments need to close down with an apocalypse.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Westerns 201

From Episode 199 (00:17:40)

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) ✓

Ken: It made a huge impression on me, because it’s about a guy who is — as far as my eight year-old self could tell — fundamentally unkillable, and he goes around, and he sort of monstrously kills a bunch of people, and more and more people try to kill him, and it can’t be done.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Robin: There are other westerns that overlay a completely different perspective on top of the standard western chassis. For example, you’ve got your psychosexual western…

Rancho Notorious (1952)

Ken and Robin: A den of scum and villainy … in bright technicolor.

Ken: It directly inverts the love triangle, in which there are these two weak men who are duelling for the love of a strong woman.

Forty Guns (1957)

The Professionals (1966)

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) ✓

Robin: Less about the theme of the western, and just about the texture of life in a western town, where the snow is deep and life is hard.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Ken: Looking at it as the ancestor — both chronologically and cinematically of the cavalry western — is a great way to watch it.

Terror in a Texas Town (1958)

Robin: This is a movie about what happens when a man has to pick up the harpoon.

Ken: Interesting, because the bad guy, the gunman, is in this case, hired by the evil developer, who’s trying to build out the valley into more civilization, and it’s the farmer who’s holding off the developer. That is a very common bit of the revisionist western mythology — that there is a sort of ‘set point’ for civilization, which is the small farmer, and that when ‘real’ civilization comes along, that’s bad news.

Robin: It’s the individual vs. capitalism.

Ken: ‘Individual vs. capitalism’ as opposed to ‘individual vs. the west’, or ‘individual vs. owlhoots’, and that’s one of the strong bits of the revisionist canon.

The Proposition (2005) ✓

Ken: Hillcoat has the sound guy have the gun sound happen before you see the gun fire. So, you’re always terrified by the gunplay, because you didn’t actually see the gun go off, but you still heard the gunshot.

The Shooting (1966)

Robin: If Antonioni had made a western and then cut 20 minutes out of it, you’d have The Shooting.

Fort Apache (1948)

Ken: John Wayne becomes the voice of reason and tolerance in a John Ford western, which all by itself is reason to watch it.

Robin: Basically, Western 215 is ‘watch all the John Ford movies that we haven’t mentioned.’

Medicine

The most dramatic difference between high schools of today and those of my time is probably not in the curriculum but in the life expectancy of the students. Then, except for the common cold and chilblains any illness might easily be fatal. It was taken for granted that a fourth of July celebration would produce injuries and suffering ranging from powder burns to lockjaw. Quarantines were imposed for the more common ailments of diptheria, scarlet fever, and the like. Treatment consisted of a few simple medications and a nourishing diet while the victim and the family waited cure or death. Diagnosis was hardly exact. ‘Blood poisoning’ was a favorite phrase to cover a multitude of mishaps.

Dwight Eisenhower, At Ease: Stories I Tell my Friends

Complete Knowledge

If the past were recoverable in its totality it would, after all, overwhelm the present.

John Hale

I had an idea years ago for a story where all the surviving archaeological secrets that complicate human history were suddenly revealed. Everything which the line of sight keeps hidden: the foundations of an ice age settlement swallowed by the sea; the staggered bones of a lost legion sunk into the desert; every unrecorded explorer’s grave hastily scratched into the tundra; the last surviving copy of a book we thought had burned.

From somewhere in the depths of space, a beam of coordinates is received by our telescopes, and in that instant the globe becomes a cemetary where the dead have risen from their graves. We can only guess at the source of the data, and its motives, but the result is paradoxical: history is broken by uncertainty once every secret is made manifest.

I read the Hale quote much later. It’s most likely I was thinking about this quote by Lovecraft:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

And this one, by Fernand Braudel:

I have always believed that history cannot be really understood unless it is extended to cover the entire human past.

Superciliousness

In a moment of high drama, his aged father hurled himself on the ground at Gregory’s feet, and cried ‘My son, where are you going? Shall I ever see you again?’

‘It is written,’ Gregory answered, as he stepped over the obstacle, ‘ that thou shalt trample on the ass and the basilisk.’

Thus saying, he mounted his mule, which started to walk backwards. Eventually, another animal was brought, and the pope was able to start out for Marseille, the scribes, lawyers, engrossers, and bullatores of the Papal court dribbling along behind him with their piles of parchment, documents, seals, ribbons, and all the other material of the spider’s web that Avignon had woven around Christendom.

Frances Stonor Saunders, Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman

An engrosser is either someone who seeks to obtain a monopoly in a limited market, or someone who makes illuminated manuscripts. In the context of this sentence I would say that either meaning is equally likely. After a little research, I have no idea what a bullatore is, though it’s probably related to a bulla, which is the round seal used to stamp papal documents (bulls).

Sword and Sandals and Syntax

“[Conan], whose barbarian antics are set in the Hyborian Age, back in pre-history, when all women and almost no clauses were subordinate.”

Brian Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction

Starvation

“The killer targets the most innocent, the people who would never steal food, lie, cheat, break the law, or betray a friend. It was a phenomenon that the Italian writer Primo Levi identified after emerging from Auschwitz, when he wrote that he and his fellow survivors never wanted to see one another again after the war, because they had all done something of which they were ashamed.”

Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy

Xerxes whipping the Hellespont

“To forget that we are hemmed in by facts which are for the most part independent of our desires is a form of insane megalomania. This kind of insanity has grown up as a result of the triumph of scientific technique. Its latest manifestation is Stalin’s refusal to believe that heredity can have the temerity to ignore Soviet decrees, which is like Xerxes whipping the Hellespont to teach Poseidon a lesson.”

— Bertrand Russell

In this case, the phrase ‘scientific technique’ refers to the theory of Marx, Dewey, et. al, that science is useful insofar as it allows us to exert power. So, ‘technique’ as the opposite of knowledge, curiosity, wonder, etc.

Philosophical Tapdancing

“Hume, nearly two hundred years ago, threw doubt upon induction, as, indeed, upon most other things. The philosophers were indignant, and invented refutations of Hume, which passed muster on account of their extreme obscurity. Indeed, for a long time philosophers took care to be unintelligible, since otherwise everybody would have perceived that they had been unsuccessful in answering Hume. It is easy to invent a metaphysic which will have as a consequence that induction is valid, and many men have done so; but they have not shown any reason to believe in their metaphysic except that it was pleasant.”

Bertrand Russell

Propaganda, Unintended Consequences

A North Korean soldier would later recall a buddy who had been given an American-made nail clipper and was showing it off to this friends. The soldier clipped a few nails, admired the sharp, clean edges, and marveled at the mechanics of this simple item. Then he realized with a sinking heart: if North Korea couldn’t make such a fine nail clipper, how could it compete with American weapons? For one North Korean student it was a photograph in the official media showing a South Korean on a picket line. The photograph was meant to illustrate the exploitation of the worker in capitalist society; instead the student noticed that the ‘oppressed’ worker wore a jacket with a zipper and had a ballpoint pen in his pocket, both of which were luxuries at the time.

Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy

An Estimate of the Real Military Budget

The Trillion Dollar Defense Budget is Already Here, by Robert Higgs.

The Defense Department’s budget is only a small part of the amount the United States spends on its military: hundreds of billions of dollars are hidden elsewhere, in the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, the DHS, in interest payments on defense-related national debt, and so on.

Therefore, I propose that in considering future defense budgetary costs, a well-founded rule of thumb is to take the Pentagon’s (always well publicized) basic budget total and double it. We may overstate the truth, but if so, we’ll not do so by much.

Robert Higgs

Big data

In most people’s everyday life, the computer isn’t much more than a very fast adding machine. It tends to send you bills. But it is very much more than that. The modern world could not function without computers, because they operate everything from production lines, to telephone exchanges, to traffic systems, to international finance. But the reason computers matter to you, and me, and our future, is because they have perfect memories. They never forget anything they’re told about you and me. The kind of data, say, you have to give somebody if you want a bank account, or credit, or if you want to vote, or buy a house, or if you’ve been accused of a crime. And that’s why computers contain the future within them: if you tell a computer everything about a group of people, it’ll juggle the mix and come up with the one factor that is most likely to affect the decision that group will make about something, one way or the other. Knowing that is knowing the future, and that is power—but in whose hands?

James Burke:

Ours is the era of big data, so that observation is almost too trivial to make. You’d be laughed right out of your TED Talk if you proposed it as a novel insight.

However, Burke said this in 1978, when computers were still using punch cards, and the personal computing revolution was almost a decade away. The idea of doing computational analysis on consumer data wasn’t exactly new, but the idea that it would be used to wield thorough and casual power over people’s lives was.

Re-watching *Connections*, I’m finding that Burke only carves out occasional space in the program to wax paranoaic about the future of technology, but his batting average (from my position almost 40 years ahead) is unusually high, compared to other futurists.

Books Read in 2015

Non-Fiction

  • Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Francis Stonor Saunders
  • The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
  • The Western Canon by Harold Bloom
  • Ten Years Under the Earth by Norbert Castaret
  • West with the Night by Beryl Markham
  • A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
  • Design Is a Job by Mike Monteiro
  • Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Fiction

  • Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Science Fiction & Fantasy

  • Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey (The Expanse)
  • Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey (The Expanse)
  • Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling
  • The Terror  by Dan Simmons
  • The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  • The Drowned World by JG Ballard
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey
  • The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
  • The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Authority by Jeff Vandermeer
  • Deathworld by Harry Harrison

Rereads

  • On Blue’s Waters by Gene Wolfe (The Book of the Short Sun)
  • In Green’s Jungles by Gene Wolfe (The Book of the Short Sun)
  • Shadow Games by Glen Cook (The Black Company)
  • The White Rose by Glen Cook (The Black Company)
  • Shadows Linger by Glen Cook (The Black Company)
  • The Silver Spike by Glen Cook (The Black Company)
  • The Guns of Avalon by Roger Zelazny (The Chronicles of Amber)
  • Nine Princes In Amber by Roger Zelazny (The Chronicles of Amber)

My Current Privacy and Ad-Blocking Suite

My intent is to keep this updated periodically, and whenever I change it.

I am a thousand miles away from being a security expert, but I feel like I’m slightly more paranoid than most people, and have done just enough research to offer a good starting point.

Chrome Extensions

  1. uBlock Origin for blocking advertisements. This replaced Adblock Plus. uBlock claims to use fewer system resources, but that doesn’t seem to make a difference on my system. The reason I chose it is because ABP evidently gets money from advertisers to privilege certain ads by default. As a user, you can turn this option off, but it seems like a conflict of interest to me, and since I have a choice, I will go with the equally useful alternative.
  2. Disconnect for third-party cookie blocking. This replaced Ghostery, which had become a little too invasive, requiring me to rerun the setup process on every account in Chrome (I have three) every time it automatically updated itself.
  3. Vanilla Cookies for blocking all cookies. This may prove to be redundant with Disconnect, but it caught a few things which Ghostery did not.

VPN Software

  1. I use OpenVPN Access Server on a Virtual Private Server (VPS) hosted by NFO. Though I was eventually able to get it running, setting up the standard OpenVPN server and client packages proved more difficult than I wanted it to be, since I know next to nothing about networking and server administration. A full year later I discovered Access Server, which is made for rookies like me. It’s a 5-minute installation, very well done. The server package leads you into the client package installation, which is even simpler. The OpenVPN website, on the other hand, is just awful: I’m not even 100% sure I have included the correct link above, that’s how confusing it is.
  2. I use VPN Net Mon as a little tool to shut down applications that would reveal private data if the VPN happened to turn off without me noticing. It sits in your tray and monitors the connection, then axes programs you tell it to watch. This could include your torrent client, but also anything which sends data over the network as well.

Also, Tor browser

The Tor browser bundle has come a long way since when I first tried running it. It’s basically idiot proof at this point. It does add noticeable latency, so I don’t use it for regular surfing. It’s an additional layer of protection that’s pretty low effort.

Search Engine

My default search engine for the last few years has been Duck Duck Go. Whereas Google’s policy is to track everything and perform big data alchemy on it, DDG doesn’t track anything, they just provide search for you. Their design is top notch, and the search results are officially ‘good enough’. The bang operators are a great feature I use dozens of times a day, as well.

Knights fighting Snails

“As anyone who is familiar with 13th and 14th century illuminated manuscripts can attest, images of armed knights fighting snails are common.”

Often, the snails fare pretty well in the fight.

What is the significance of the snail imagery? Nobody really knows for sure, and it’s not obvious from context. One possibility is that the snail stands in for some contemporary figure or group, like in an editorial cartoon. Another is that it’s a sort of meme, a joke that the young men drawing marginalia learned and copied from the works of their peers.